Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thinking in Unison


                ^^ The space in between the parentheses above phonetically expresses the sound I was able to make after hearing three works by Schumann in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s “Schumann/Schumann” concert on Wednesday night. And trust me, I mean that in a good way.
                One of the most obvious equations in classical music is the interaction between composer and performer. Lots of the time, the performer doesn't know the composer personally. Sometimes, even when the two do know each other, the separation between these two positions can be obvious and unsettling. One can always tell when a performer is only following what they see on the music in front of them and doesn't have a connection with the piece. But there are sometimes those rare moments when these positions are invisible and all that is evident is the music. The composer and performer are subconsciously working together instead of for each other; in cases like these, the audience feels like they are in the presence of an event. When music can so easily become a predictable action, phenomenon like these are crucial. I'm definitely not saying performers should start composing for their composers and composers should start performing for their performers (whew). But sound is almost always heard by more than one person; when the ideas of the composer are identical with the performer’s ideas, that’s when the magic happens. I was lucky enough to witness this at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

                The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival was founded in 1972 with the cellist Pablo Casals serving as its honorary president. In its 39th season, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in classical music during its lifetime. Composers such as Aaron Copland, Steve Stucky, and John Harbison have been commissioned by the festival. This season includes performers such as Joyce Yang, Anne-Marie McDermott, Felix Fan, and Cynthia Phelps and many more, with Dawn Upshaw as the artist-in-residence. Upshaw is an American soprano who has established herself as one of the great 20th and 21st century performers. Not only is Upshaw a wonderful performer, but she is an ambitious one—Osvaldo Golijov (the down-to-earth, moody Argentinean composer), Kaija Saariaho, John Adams, Alban Berg, and George Crumb are just some of the composers of the works she has performed/premiered. She is a MacArthur fellow and has won four Grammys. Plus, she’s won a spot in the heart of blogger Opera Chic. I mean, just look at those titles.

How about those Schumanns?
                Before Upshaw, Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances,” Op. 22 for violin and piano, an intensely romantic piece, was performed. Something admirable about the composition is the individuality of the two parts, especially in the first romance—played separately, they would still have a beauty, even though that beauty would be more subdued and two-dimensional. The piece is also dotted with almost contemporary-seeming elements. In the second romance, the violin, after some ascending trills, slows to a two note phrase while the piano ascends in (what sounds like) thirds against the rhythm of the violin—it feels like a relaxed yet important inhale. Actions like this are small but pull the listener out of the saturating pool of romanticism that could become monotonous in different hands. Those touches are what make Clara Schumann’s music charming; even though her composing wasn’t always encouraged by the society she lived in, one can tell she loved it by these small, careful intricacies. The violinist Jessica Lee and the pianist, Inon Barnatan, worked together easily despite the fact that Gilbert Kalish was the scheduled pianist. Body language might not be scientifically proven to make you play better, but Barnatan’s movements made me feel included in the music, like he was inviting the audience into his home with a freshly cooked meal on the table.
                Then came the Lieder, and the phenomenon really began.  
                You know those moments when you’re a child, and you enter a room that makes an impact on you? Looking back on that moment, the room seems many times bigger than it is in reality. Scientists say this is because we take in more information about a space when we first visit it, and it therefore expands the actual size of the room in our minds. Well, this is what Dawn Upshaw, Inon Barnatan, and Robert Schumann together did for the Lieder. In reality, the piece, which consisted of seven separate songs, lasted maybe around 20 minutes. In terms of size, the piece was minor compared to perhaps a fully orchestrated piece. However, in the midst of the work, I felt as though I was listening to the intensity and power of a long symphony. I believe this was due to the ideas of the composer’s and performers’ ideas being in unison. Fully memorized by Upshaw, the piece flowed naturally out of her, and her and Schumann's roles didn’t matter. Schumann didn’t compose for Upshaw, and Upshaw wasn’t just performing Schumann, but they were an in-the-moment team. They transcended the obvious equation. I began to note in my program moments in the concert when I thought one or the other was leading the train. In the second song of the Lieder, “Er ist’s,” Schumann had written a fiercely flexible vocal challenge that Upshaw conquered.  Her attack on the first note of the song was so strong, it made my friend sitting next to me jump in her seat. She stayed with it throughout the song, like a bull rider accomplishing a full eight seconds. However, in the song titled “Jemand,” Upshaw seemed to be leading. Once, in that section, Upshaw reached the syllable “eee” resting on a high note. She delicately nudged the note, and the sound was delivered with such grace that I wish all my “e’s” sounded like that. Inon Barnatan, the pianist accompanying Upshaw, stayed hand-in-hand with her voice and blended seamlessly. His ideas were clear and not overshadowing when they didn’t need to be. Schumann’s involvement in the piece didn’t end when he wrote that double bar—it never ends. But it takes the right performers to make that involvement come alive again.

                This trend continued when Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 was performed by Soovin Kim (violin), Choong-Jin Chang (viola), Peter Stumpf (cello), and Inon Barnatan (piano). One can tell when the players of a work are truly contributing to the music itself, and this was one of those instances. The piece begins with warm chords from the strings slowly opening the doors to the work’s personalities. However, the first movement quickly establishes itself as one that needs involvement, and the SFCMF performers did that. They weren’t just outputs for Schumann’s composition, but clear components of the path to the success of the work. Again, they were on a team with Schumann and were not just his minions. The very last notes of each of the movements were some of the most satisfying passages of the concert as a listener, and they were carried out with confidence—the second movement’s closing is that oh-so-familiar resolving pizzicato that makes the entire audience chuckle silently to themselves, creating a slight vibration just above the crowd (don’t you love those moments?). The only “flaw” I could pick out was the cellist’s obvious tuning in the middle of a movement—and I’m not even sure if that’s a flaw or an opinion of stage appearance.  
                 According to Plato, equations such as the circumference of a circle are part of the “world of ideas” and are therefore permanent. But, in the world of music, equations that can seem permanent are often proved beatable. The familiar timeline of composer to performer to listener is an exhausted one, and when a listener is treated to a performance where this timeline is transcended, it’s a privilege. The performers of the “Schumann/Schumann” concert of the SFCMF weren’t just involved in their separate parts, but were involved in being a part of the ideas of the Schumanns. Instead of being simply performers, they were creators and team members. Of course, Schumann wasn’t standing backstage physically shouting commands and “helping out.” But he wasn’t just two-dimensional notes on a page, either. I could feel his cloud of ideas floating around in the room, and it was a welcome presence. But, if he was backstage, that would have been pretty cool.

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