Classical review: Poetry set to music

Tuesday October 2, 2012

PITTSFIELD - Take rapturous love poems and turn them into angular, astringent songs. Can it work?

Hard to be sure on first hearing. But composer Eric Moe took up the challenge in "Of Color Braided All Desire," which received its world premiere by soprano Christine Brandes and the Brentano String Quartet Sunday afternoon at South Mountain. It was one in a series of South Mountain commissions.

The cycle of four contrasting songs sets poems by May Swenson.

Moe, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and was on hand for the premiere, seems to have gone against the grain of the texts. They suggest sensuousness and even voluptuousness. He employs vocal lines full of wide jumps, accompanied by slashing string figures.

Example: The last song is "Incantation," which Moe describes as "a thundering invocation of elemental forces" but is full of erotic imagery and word play. It ends with the couplet "Snow ocean white fire/color me with fresh desire."

The voice leapt high to a near-scream on the final word. Desire seemed held at arm's length.

Similar effects marked the preceding songs, "Swimmers," "Four-word Lines" and "Fireflies." The fireflies' flicker was suggested by stuttering figures in the strings.

Convention dictates that poems like these should be set in a lyrical mode. Well, down with convention. But why not at least a suggestion of panting, braided desire?

If not instantly likable, "Of Color Braided All Desire" is a serious work that challenges the mind and avoids easy answers. (The title comes from a line in "Incantation.") Moe writes that the cycle was initiated by Brandes and composed for her and the Brentano.

Given the origins, the performance had to be taken as what the composer wanted.

Yet it might have contributed to the initially off-putting effect.

Brandes' voice was sometimes strained or shrill, and her diction sometimes odd ("our" pronounced as "are.") Future performances might find greater depths. And in any case, it was good to see South Mountain stepping out of its conservative box.

The Brentano, which has made previous forays into the Berkshires, sandwiched the premiere between Haydn's Quartet, Opus 42, and Beethoven's Opus 130.

The players took up the invitation of Haydn's key of D minor, which suggests stormy drama. (It was Mozart's favorite key for that purpose.)

With stretched- out pauses and held notes, the performance went for intensity, culminating in outright storm and stress in the finale. Sectional repeats were omitted.

The six-movement Beethoven work, from late in his life, was performed with his lighter substitute ending rather than the original "Great Fugue," which can sound visionary even today.

The performance was attentive to ensemble needs and psychological weight, if lacking in the ease to penetrate the music's infinite mysteries.


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