Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

German Romantics and the Festival Audiences Who Love Them

June 09, 2012

Reinbert de Leeuw and Lucy Shelton with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
As the 2012 Ojai Festival moved into its second day, the order of business was the continued legacy of German Romanticism in the 20th Century and beyond. Granted this is not a revolutionary theme here or elsewhere for music audiences, but if you want to hear whining about some lost idealized free-spirited California hippie community past, read the Los Angeles Times. Those of us not gnashing our teeth have enjoyed three programs so far where the greatest of Lieder have served as a stepping off point for 20th-century and newer work. On Friday night, members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra were joined by conductor, composer, and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw and soprano Lucy Shelton for that evening’s cornerstone performance, de Leeuw’s Im wundershonen Monat Mai. Yes, that is the same Lied that opens Schumann’s Dichterliebe and this is no off hand subtle reference. Instead, de Leeuw has crafted a large, almost 90 minute, song cycle out of Lieder not only from Schumann, but Schubert as well. But the guiding force here isn’t so much the long history of great Lied recitals as it is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The 21 songs in Im wundershonen Monat Mai are expanded and altered with edits both in the text and score. The piece begins in the dark with de Leeuw playing the opening bars of the first song as with any recital, but as Mr. Shelton entered, he was joined by the dozen or so strings and winds of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra whom he’d adapted parts for. This was not a radical reimagining of the music, and throughout the songs were recognizable and familiar with modernist touches here and there. The ordering and sampling of songs not only from Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Wintereisse allowed for some thematic changes with darker toned songs kept together and more sunny ones placed elsewhere often to more ironic effect.

But perhaps the most radical invention in de Leeuw’s new multi-part cycle was the elimination of the actual singing in favor of something closer to the acted Sprechgesang of Pierrot Luanire. Schumann and Schubert first and foremost were setting great poetry and de Leeuw wanted to capture the immediacy of that by enlisting an actress for the works premiere, the legendary Barbara Sukowa. (An early performance of de Leeuw with Sukowa and the Schonbert Ensemble has been filmed and is available on DVD.) Sukowa was originally announced to appear on this program in Ojai, but withdrew at the last minute to be replaced by American soprano Lucy Shelton. Though a professionally trained singer, Shelton is no light-weight at milking the dramatic potential out of texts and she threw herself into this rather last-minute assignment with abandon. However, while I greatly respected the project and performance, I must admit that it wasn’t necessarily all that engaging throughout. At times there was a dark, cabaret feel to the songs, and at others the music seemed to wander in no particular direction. Shelton relied on a score for the performance, understandably, given the circumstances. But I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing from these songs that were more orchestrated than their piano and voice versions but not necessarily more revealing than when they are well sung in their original context.

One of the new initiatives at this year’s festival besides the streaming webcasts of the performances the whole world can listen to, has been the addition of late night mini-concerts with the performers following the evening’s main program. On Friday night, Festival Music Director Leif Ove Andsnes returned with three pairings of quiet lullabies written by Bent Sørensen each played without pause with one of three other pieces- Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque in the orchestrated version, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. Christianne Stotijn returned as vocalist for the Mahler songs which served as the heart of the program. It was a beautiful, contained afterthought on the preceding evening. Each larger piece seemed to grow out of Sørensen’s quiet, child-like enducements to sleep with something decidedly more complicated and adult. Sleep becomes more complicated physically and metaphorically with age and these sly pairings hit nerves at every turn. Stotijn became most convincing at the end of the set with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” where the overwhelming sense of letting go filled her voice, which displayed the most warmth.

de Leeuw, Stotijn, Andsnes, and Fröst with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
She was just getting started, though, and by Saturday morning she had returned for more of the German Romanticism again paired with more recent works for contrast. Saturday morning’s program was all about the legacy of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. No actual music from that greatest of scores crept into the program, but it haunted everything, frequently in direct if unsustained quotations. The show started with Eivind Buene’s 2003 Langsam und Schmachtend which referenced much more than the musical notation for Tristan’s overture. Buene follows the inevitable and logical decomposition tethered together so precariously in that landmark piece of music and the brief piece had more a sense of inevitability than nostalgia. Stotijn performed Wagner’s Wesendock Lieder with support from the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra - each song intercut with a movement from Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano. Andsnes was joined by soloist Martin Fröst for these islands highlighting Berg’s debt to Wagner. Stotijn seemed more comfortable here than in the previous evenings with clearer phrasing and more even tone. She followed the Wagner with Berg’s Four Songs Op.2 accompanied by Marc-André Hamelin and sounded every inch a first rate Marie.

The morning concluded with a respite and a movement away from these later romantics by revisiting Andsnes’ current obsession and the forerunner of all that had gone before, Beethoven. He played the “Waldstein” Piano Sonata, which could not have sounded more polished or appropriate in the midday summer air of Ojai. All the world seemed to sing along with Beethoven, and Andsnes seemed to put a period on the music of the last 24 hours as if to say it’s time to move on. It wasn’t an evening and afternoon of breaking ground, but it was certainly one that revisited well known histories and linkages with lovely world class performances. It might not be scrappy and dangerous like some musical laboratory, but it was excellent playing from collaborative performers that engaged.


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