Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tenor's Recital at Spivey Hall: Matthew Palenzani with Julius Drake

[Photo from Spivey Hall website: The hall, the tenor, the pianist]
"Chopsticks" was the first number on yesterday's program at Spivey Hall at Clayton College, Morrow, Georgia.  After applause, the pianist Julius Drake announced that they would perform Beethoven's extraordinary "Adelaide" (pronounced Ah - de - lah - EE - da), just as soon as Drake retrieved the music backstage.  To fill the time, Palenzani played a little piano, and chatted with the audience about his son's piano lessons. "I like this," he said. "Now you know we're just regular guys."

Regular guys should have such range and control!  The Beethoven, in four contrasting stanzas, gave the two artists chances to impress us with the softness of the sounds they could sustain, and with volume that shook our seats in the resonant hall.

But, more than a program of songs, a recital can also be a kind of theatre.  

The program called for a range of characters and situations, all mimed from the piano, center-stage.  For songs by Liszt, Palenzani seemed to be visualizing the images of the text -- swans, blossoms, a violent storm.  Another set of Liszt, all texts by Victor Hugo, gave Palenzani some characters to play, too:  the gentle lover,  the self-lionizing lover ("If I were God...") who reaches a sheepish conclusion, that he'd trade "heavens and the worlds" for a kiss.    Palenzani would adjust his stance, and set his eyes on some visualized image reflected in his face and voice.  Drake got into the act, too, leaning forward where "intensity" increased, bowing his head over hands at rest on the keys for a moment of solemnity, launching his right hand in a backward arch after snapping a note.

The composers and the poets were present as characters, too.  Erik Satie lightened things up with a song about a bronze frog, which Palenzani ended with a wry expression on the ironic line, "At night, the insects go to sleep / in his mouth."  Each of Satie's songs got a laugh.  Ravel's accompaniment for Five Greek Folksongs punctuated the text, and gave emotional depth that I didn't see in the translations before Palenzani performed them back-to-back:  Following a wedding song that ended with the exuberant proclaimation that "In our two families, [now] everyone is related,"  Palenzani, with Drake and Ravel, shifted into a different kind of place where families are reunited: the church graveyard.

The finale was a suite of "Hermit Songs" that Samuel Barber composed for Leontyne Price.  In an interview this week, Palenzani noted that some of the texts are clearly from the masculine point of view, while only one, "St. Ita's Vision" is clearly feminine.  In any case, we had no trouble believing Palenzani in the roles of various 8th century Irish monks, devoted to their faith and work, recording some of their stray thoughts in the margins of texts that they spent their lives copying.  One rues his own "heart, not softer than a stone," while another speculates about where a village lass might be sleeping that night.  Another imagines throwing a party in heaven, where he'd treat Jesus and the rest to a "lake of beer."  A meditation on the pain of the Crucifixion is intensified by the thought that Jesus would see the suffering he caused his mother.  Finally, there's "The Monk and His Cat," a translation by Auden of a monk's whimsical observation that he, trying to "catch" the elusive meaning of a text, is like his faithful cat Pangur, trying to catch a mouse.  (See my blog post about that text, Reading, Writing, and Pet Ownership ca. 800 AD)

Naturally, we rose to demand encores.  The artists were "in the mood," and obliged with three, the last being Ravel's only composition in English, a Scottish tune.  I'd come with my friend Susan because we'd both heard this duo perform "Danny Boy" on public radio's Performance Today;  Ravel's was similar in character, a little more rarefied, and very effective at conjuring what Susan called "joy in sadness."

A personal note:  at intermission, I recognized Dr. John Clum, who had taught me in many contexts at Duke University back in the late 1970s.  I've written about him on a page of tributes to my teachers.  Find it here

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