What’s 400 years between composers?

Seattle has struggled to create an identity as a major, American city for as long as I have lived here. Each time, it seemed poised to break out, the provincial mindset, which has long dominated the city’s culture, reasserted itself. For 72 hours last weekend, Seattle’s music and performance finally broke loose, bringning us Heiner Goebbels’ “Songs of Wars I’ve Seen,” a music and theater piece based on Getrude Stein’s writings.

Last weekend’s performance of “Songs” was the result of a partnership between three of Seattle’s leading music and performance organizations: On The Boards, a longtime proponent of contemporary performance; Pacific Musicworks, Steven Stubbs’ new, early music organization; and Seattle Chamber Players, the local equivalent of Bang on a Can or the Kronos Quartet.

The Chamber Players, after they heard one of the composer’s pieces played in Warsaw, were the first to kick around the idea of performing Goebbels’ genre bending music in Seattle. Over in Queen Anne, On The Boards had admired Goebbels‘ work long before details of the current project came together, and hoped that they would be able to bring the German’s performance art to Seattle sometime. Eventually, the two found each other and settled on producing “Songs.”

Along with incorporating spoken text, lamps tastefully positioned on stage, and a chamber orchestra, “Songs” also requires a contingent of baroque instrumentalists. The Seattle Chamber Players and On The Boards turned to Stubbs for help.

Goebbels’ piece isn’t long enough to fill a concert on its own, and for the first half, Stubbs and his early music friends opted to play Claudio Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clarinda.” Monteverdi is a lot like Goebbels. Both were ahead of their time musically. Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo,” is arguably the first modern opera. It uses polyphony, arias, instrumental solos, and just about every other established technique available to composers at the time to create a new musical format.

“Combattimento,” composed 17 years later, again shows the composer’s inventiveness, wielding musical special effects that imitate everything from galloping horses to fierce sword combat. Monteverdi even matches the pace and rhythm of sung words with the music being played. This technique shows up in minimalist pieces — like Reich’s “Different Trains” — and is even used effectively by Goebbels in “Songs.”

Other elements were added to the performance of “Combattimento” to align the piece with the theatrical bent of “Songs.” Claire Cownie’s brightly colored, simple designs provided visual enticement and Anna Mansbridge’s choreography enlivened the human drama depicted in music.

The Baroque instrumentalists weren’t done when “Combattimento” finished. Goebbels scored “Songs” for a chamber orchestra split between percussion and brass players, and a lineup of baroque strings played by women. One of Goebbels’ great achievements is how naturally he makes these instruments sound against the gritty hum of electronics or the occasional percussive rowdiness. It’s unlikely any of us will ever get to hear Ingrid Matthews’ violin or Steven Stubbs’ lute in a piece like “Songs” again. Including Baroque instruments in a new musical context should be enough invention, but Goebbels pushes the string players one step further, requiring them to recite segments of text drawn from Gertrude Stein’s writing and Matthew Locke’s “The Tempest.”

In most cases — Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony comes to mind — dramatic narration is a disaster. It is too melodramatic for its own good and an unwanted distraction from the music being played. However, Goebbels avoids this trap by requiring the musicians to do the speaking. There are no actors and no oversold lines. Goebbels’ decision infuses the spoken parts with an innocence that conveys the meaning of Stein’s words better than any actor could.

Goebbels’ flowing and cogent narrative about the war time experience was bolstered by excellent playing from the orchestra, including solos from Stubbs, flutist Paul Taub, and a dirge-like trumpet solo by Tony DiLorenzo at the piece’s conclusion. On the podium, Anu Tali kept everything under control. No stranger to the piece, she will conduct “Songs” again with the BCN216 Ensemble.

In the weeks leading up to the performance of “Combattimento” and “Songs of Wars I’ve Seen,” I told anyone who would listen these concerts would be the new music events of 2010. For me, two non-musical observations, affirmed my boasts. First, coupling Monteverdi with Goebbels created a thought provoking program that exploded the barriers dividing classical music into tidy, finite creative periods by linking two pieces of music separated by centuries. This is the type of program many music fans yearn for. The program didn’t pander to the audience. Nor was it obtuse.

Second, two audiences which seldom overlap, came together and experienced each other’s preferred music. The proper early music crowd heard a modern masterpiece, and Seattle’s skinny jean clad, new music hoi polloi hopefully learned music can be revelatory even if it is 400 years old and doesn’t use a prepared piano or a sampler. For one weekend, Seattle felt like a major, American city. Whether these feelings last longer than 72 hours is up to us.

You can read more about “Songs” on the City Arts blog here.

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One thought on “What’s 400 years between composers?

  1. Isn’t it funny, and kind of sad, that nobody had thought to do this before? Well, maybe they had but I hadn’t heard about it. As a classical music omnivore, it bums me out that I have to go to different concerts/series to hear music from a wider-than-200-yrs. chronological span, and that audiences do get so sub-specialized and hidebound in their concert-going ways. I hope the success of the On the Boards shows will encourage presenters to take on this kind of adventurous programming again soon and often!

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