Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gil Morgenstern Recreates the Ambience of a Fin-de-Siecle Paris Salon

For the past few years, violinist Gil Morgenstern‘s Reflections Series has imaginatively and fascinatingly blended both classical and new music with drama, literature and history. Thursday night at WMP Concert Hall, he offered a revealing look back at the musical life of the long-running Paris salon run by Winnaretta Singer, an heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune who commissioned works by many major composers including Stravinsky, Debussy and Satie. The program, featuring Morgenstern along with pianist Hiromi Fukuda and soprano Deborah Selig, was especially interesting in that it included both major and less important works. Because that’s what the programs were like at these salons – as Morgenstern explained, composers would use the events as a focus group or open mic of sorts to work up new material, gauge the audience’s reaction and explore collaborations with other musicians. These gatherings also served as an important way of connecting ambitious (or impoverished) composers with patrons of the arts. These days, you send off a grant proposal and cross your fingers: in 1896, you schmoozed someone like Singer. Morgenstern related an anecdote of how Maurice Ravel brazenly dedicated a piece to her before he’d even met her, a faux pas if there ever was one – and yet, as the work began to make waves and Singer’s following began congratulating her for having such cutting-edge taste, she had no choice but to play along as if she’d actually commissioned it.

Ravel’s Tzigane was the last piece on the bill, and one of the highlights. It’s a showstopper, Morgenstern gritting his teeth and blazing through its strenuously challenging gypsy-inflected passages with equal parts passion and skill, firing off lightning pizzicato passages, plucking his strings mandolin-style or launching a series of airy overtones requiring a touch completely the opposite of the pyrotechnics of the rest of the piece. The most gypsyish passages belonged to Fukuda, who dug into them with similar verve when she joined in about halfway through.

Debussy’s Sonata No. 3 in G Minor, the last work the composer finished prior to his death in 1918, was only slightly less intense and equally gripping. Lively but ridden with unease, it undoubtedly reflects a wartime ambience. Morgenstern and Fukuda brought a warily conversational feel to the fugal pizzicato of its “fantasque et leger” middle section and wound out with a brisk ominousness through the distantly gypsy-tinged concluding dance. Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole, a series of 1925 miniatures written for a puppet show, were delightfully evocative, shifting from the Spanish ragtime, to hypnotic counterpoint, to a blustery, brief fight song, to a genial, laid-back “good guy theme” of sorts. And Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante and Divertimento was a fascinating look at the composer in full-blown Romantic mode, or at least as immersed in the tropes of the era – a dramatic overture, a playful gypsy dance and a rather blissed-out coda – as he ever was.

And as much of as Singer’s salon, and others like it, were fertile incubators for talent, they were also the pops concerts of their day. Most of the vocal numbers on the bill were a reminder that top 40 has been with us long before there was such a thing as the top 40. A series of Ravel settings of French poetry were early examples of the power ballad, foreshadowing Freddie Mercury; several similar works by Faure featured some demanding, insistent staccato passages that Fukuda managed to glide through with impressive ease – or what looked like it, anyway. This was a tough gig for Selig – these were hard songs to sell. Her approach was to deliver them with a full, round intonation, more in the style of a chorister, a clever and very effective strategy: words took a backseat to color and dynamics. A trio of Schubert songs at the end of the program became a canvas for her to vividly draw a playful butterfly – “keep your hands off my flower!” – a lovelorn riverside tableau, and then ecstasy, or at least a version thereof.

The next Reflections Series concert, here at 7:30 PM on February 17 of next year, explores the effect of location, dislocation and diaspora on composers and their works, featuring pianist Jonathan Feldman, music of Chopin, Schulhoff and Smetana, and a not-yet-announced literary component.

November 20, 2010 - Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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