Friday, December 23, 2011

Susanna Phillips: Paysages

I’m pretty sure French vocal music wouldn’t be considered the type of music one would blast in one’s car.  Well, I was. Until I listened to, and most definitely blasted in my car, Susanna Phillips’s debut solo album Paysages.
Easily one of the best solo vocal albums of the year, Paysages gives the listener more than a collection of songs; within it is music so purely fluid, breathtaking, and surreal that a listen is more of a journey to a separate world than an addition to an existing one. Phillips has included three composers on the album: Debussy, Fauré, and Messiaen. While all three are French, lived in similar time periods, and use comparable sounds occasionally, each composer brings out a different perspective in their choice of texts and music, and Phillips takes advantage of this. She is able to take each song, which posses unique destinations and atmospheres, and create a true collection, something that is varying but connected.
The first six tracks on the album are Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées,” or “forgotten songs,” composed between 1885 and 1887. The song cycle is said to have marked Debussy’s evolution from a more traditional composer to one of his own style. Like many of Debussy’s pieces for voice, the vocal lines are natural and feel as if they permanently reside along with the clouds of ambiguous sound the piano creates. The poetry for this collection, by Paul Verlaine, reaches insightful observations through painting-like images (“It weeps in my heart like the rain over the village. What is this exhaustion that penetrates my heart?”).
Phillips latches on to Debussy’s liquid phrases and seems effortless from the moment she allows her voice to flow out to the last trickles of sound. “C’est l’extase,” the first track on the album, is a wandering yet determined. Included are sounds ranging from calm phrases to cries that curve like feathers in air.  In contrast, “Chevaux de Bois” is like a train on a track with its steady pace and subtle sforzandos.  Myra Huang, Phillips’s accompanist, handles the piano parts perfectly as well. Because of Debussy’s finesse with the instrument, the piano parts are pieces in and of themselves (such as the arpeggios in “Green”). However, with the balance that Huang offers, they allow the voice to be in the appropriate position at each moment.
Messiaen’s “Poémes pour Mi,” with their more dissonant, east-of-France-inspired sounds, show both the musical atmosphere in France after Debussy (though it originally was not accepted fully) and Phillips’s ability to make their slightly unsettling timbres beautiful in their own way. The vocals of Messiaen (written by the composer himself for his first wife, nicknamed “Mi”) are more introverted than Debussy’s and Fauré’s choice of poetry. The music reflects this; the dissonance of the piano and the repetitive tones of the voice seem more like a conversation with oneself than a presentation to another. “Paysage” begins with a ghost-like flutter and includes murmurs of rain-like piano. “Epouvante” is sly and angry. The piano is mushy and assertive, and Phillips’s cries and partially-a cappella statements are chilling. Along with Phillips, Huang gives Messiaen’s pieces the creepy, echo filled accompaniment they need. Because Fauré and Debussy’s songs have generally more soft and delicate sounds, “Poémes pour Mi” give the album just the right amount of angst.
Rounding out the broad representation of French composers on Paysages is Fauré, the composer who resided in the transition from Romanticism to the 20th century’s modernism. The four songs by Fauré on the album aren’t a cycle, but give the listener a sense of his finesse with voice and Phillips’s ability to stand out in these iconic French songs.  The poetry from Charles Jean Grandmougin and Romain Bussine is gorgeous and subtle (Reading Grandmougin’s words from “Adieu” is definitely a bonus of the album). “Les Roses d’Ispahan” has a piano part that is almost a perfect blend of Schumann-like Romanticism and glassy impressionism. The classic melody of “Nell” gives Phillips’s the opportunity to take her voice in multiple directions and in a conversational, natural style. “Après un rêve” pairs a simple, solid piano accompaniment with heart-wrenching vocals.
“Adieu,” the last track on the album, is delicate and discusses how everything is subject to change. In it, Grandmougin’s words are (in English), “But alas! The longest of loves are cut short!” I’d like to think that Grandmougin writes about Phillips’s and Paysages–it’s an album that, no matter how long it could go on, can only have one downfall—the moment it stops. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Bow is Mightier than the Bill

                The whole orchestra froze. The conductor’s arms flew into the air and stopped like they had lost their ability to budge.  The sound, a single wave made up of around 100 separate voices, slammed into the walls and the audience’s faces, creating a resonance that vibrated everywhere. The cloud of clapping began to trickle in, starting at the balcony and moving down. Some thought the movement was over and were prepared to give their thanks and turn their backs as they filed down the steps. But the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 5th wasn’t over, and it flooded our ears again. They quickly and gratefully drew their hands apart, trying to cover up the sound that had already been leaked. We were thankful we weren’t at that moment yet.
                I smiled to myself as I gazed upon the New Mexico Philharmonic as this happened, because the musicians know what this feels like. As a group of people that turned out to be an unstoppable force, they emerged from the depths of a supposed ending with a proclamation of endurance.  And it sounded pretty awesome, too.

                Saturday night, the New Mexico Philharmonic (NMPhil), along with conductor Robert Tweten and mezzo soprano Kirsten Lear, gave their inaugural concert in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just six months ago, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, ending their 79th season short and leaving many without jobs, Albuquerque without a symphony, and countless with an empty space in their ears and hearts. However, the large majority of the musicians from the NMSO came together out of the ashes to create the next chapter in organized New Mexico classical music. Out came the NMPhil, an isomer of the NMSO and an orchestra that can hopefully find an adequate space in the state’s blueprint to reside in for as long as possible.
                The NMSO’s major downfall was their massive debt due to many different aspects of performing—renting Popejoy Hall, paying musicians, various bills, or buying music all created a large amount of money due that the symphony simply didn’t have. Many have criticized the disjunction between the board and the musicians as well; however, only those involved know the truth. The NMPhil needs to check for any loose screws early in the process to try to avoid problems like the NMSO faced early this year, and I suspect they’re doing so—the sponsor list is strong, and the board is made up of musicians as well as others. In a place like New Mexico where loyalty is needed due to cities that are spread apart and a smaller community of frequent audience members, orchestras are difficult organizations to keep alive in recessions. I have a feeling the NMPhil can do it.

Kirsten Lear

Robert Tweten
                The opening program was one that few would be disappointed with—Copland’s “Rodeo” and “Old American Songs,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Copland is a composer that never fails to induce high-fives/instant ticket buying when put on a program, and he didn’t fail for me this time, either. Though the mix of Copland and Tchaikovsky seem a bit strange, they melded together better than I expected through their saturations of sound. The Americana, train-track sounds of “Rodeo” followed by the homey, folk pieces of “Old American Songs” provided a pleasant segue into the rich per aspera a astrada-ness (add a new descriptive noun to the dictionary, please) of the Tchaikovsky symphony. Like the NMPhil itself, the Tchaikovsky starts out in E minor with the main theme taking on a funeral-march attitude—this, in a super-analytical world, could be seen as the ending of the NMSO. However, through the 4 movements, it moves into E major, ending triumphantly, like the NMPhil has.  Just as the audience expected from their beloved musicians, the pieces were played solidly and fully embraced the individual emotions of each one.  “Rodeo” is a piece that can be easily rushed or lack of structure—the NMPhil offered a tight, spirited version that allowed all the excerpts (especially “Hoe Down”) to be all they could be. Kirsten Tear allowed “Old American Songs” to have the slight ridiculousness that they need to; and trust me, this is a good thing. Her tone never became ridiculous itself, quite the opposite, but her playfulness created the atmosphere that the piece benefits from. The Tchaikovsky was played with a passion that was not only given through the musician’s talent, but possibly could have been subconsciously attained through the piece’s aural journey, ultimate achievement through conflict. Tweten became an instant-love between my friend and I. Not only was his shiny, bouncing hair a large plus, but his movements were avid without drawing the attention away from the music.
                Having a symphony in a city is like having a piece of furniture in the living room of that city. No, the furniture might not contribute to the structure of the house and mortgage loans aren’t given out to buy it, but it’s a necessary item. No living room stands bare with simply a rug or a painting on the wall. Each person needs somewhere to cozy up, to remember what it’s like to live in that city. For me, the NMPhil fills the space of Albuquerque that I needed occupied. I have many other outlets for music in New Mexico that make my life wonderful, but having a large, official ensemble in reach is comforting. The audience of the NMPhil might have clapped at the wrong time during the music, but what matters is that there was something to clap for. And when the clapping came at the “correct” time, there was a whole lot of it.