Valentine’s Day date with Death
Black roses for Valentine’s Day? Santa Fe Pro Musica is presenting music on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13 and 14, that is romantic, all right — if you find darkest night and death just the thing to make your true love’s heart go pitty-pat. On the other hand, classical music, even at its most intense, can rouse the spirits and enrich the soul. Smuggle in a couple of chocolate truffles to enjoy during intermission, and you could have a nearly full-body romantic experience.
Pro Musica music director Thomas O’Connor confessed that this concert was planned before a date was picked. “O rose, thou art sick!” tenor John Elwes will sing in Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and String Orchestra, a song cycle featuring lyrics borrowed from British poets, including the words above, byWilliam Blake. “Seal the hushed casket of my soul,” is another less-than-cheerful line, from John Keats’ “To Sleep.” The piece does include some good news — with pastoral, sonnet, and hymn sections in addition to the grimmer nocturne, elegy, and dirge.
Written duringWorldWar II for a great horn player, Dennis Brain, as well as the tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s life partner), the Serenade was chosen by O’Connor as the centerpiece of this concert, once a grant from Thaw Charitable Trust enabled the orchestra to invite Elwes, a renowned tenor and Britten protégé, to perform with them.
Elwes met the composer when he was a teenager and head chorister atWestminster Cathedral in London. Early success as a boy soprano eventually led to a career as a tenor, but only after Britten dedicated his “Corpus Christi Carol” to him. At the age of 14, Elwes (who went by the name John Hahessy at the time) sang the part of Isaac in the world-premiere recording of Britten’s canticle “Abraham and Isaac.” “John has special perspective about the work of Britten,” said O’Connor. “He brings more meaning to the music.”
In 2007, Pro Musica was nominated for a Grammy award for a recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde ( The Song of the Earth) with the Smithsonian Chamber Players, and Elwes was the tenor soloist. O’Connor is delighted to have the singer back. “He is a world-class, distinguished singer.”
Although the Pro Musica orchestra features a repertoire covering four centuries of music and often performs with Baroque instruments, in this concert all the music was written from the Romantic period onward. Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet ties in nicely with O’Connor’s concert theme, not just because of its inherent darkness but also because of the orchestra’s fondness and commitment to the works of Mahler.
The Schubert was originally written in 1826 and performed widely as a string quartet. The orchestral arrangement, written around the turn of the 20th century by Mahler but never published, was discovered years after the death of the latter composer and not brought to life until 1984. The orchestration was found by Mahler’s daughter among his effects— the composer had almost completely annotated a score of the quartet. The version Pro Musica will perform in Santa Fe was completed by scholars.
The original piece, based on a folk tale about a bride-to-be who is forced to spend her prenuptial night with Death, is wonderfully brought into even fuller life through Mahler’s orchestration. “Mahler made dynamic changes, added the bass part, and brought a more muscular quality and richness to the piece,” O’Connor said. “With a string orchestra, there’s this carpet coverage of sound that happens. Mahler uses that brilliantly.”
The third piece in the concert, Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D Minor for Violin and String Orchestra, like the Mahler orchestration of “Death and the Maiden,” took over a century to come to light. Written starting in 1821, when the composer, a Mozart-like prodigy, was 12 years old, the piece languished in obscurity, along with many of his other early works, which were considered, perhaps, unworthy because of their simple, youthful construction. It wasn’t until the 20th-century violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin was introduced to the work (and bought the rights from descendants of the composer) that the piece was finally recorded and performed, in the early 1950s.
“Mendelssohn had complete mastery at 14 and 15,” said O’Connor. “The concerto is light and sprightly. It was probably written for family musicales, and it has moments that are almost jokey.” Still, O’Connor said that it was clear that the young composer was already a master of form. “His bridge passages, the way he would move from one theme to the next— these were already excellent. Once he got older, his melodic ideas increased.”
Mendelssohn, a German of Jewish descent whose music was later banned by the Nazis, was a contemporary of the much more experimental composers Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz, and he was sometimes criticized for his relatively conservative style. Still, the man who wrote the “Scottish Symphony,” “Elijah” oratorio, and Songs Without Words and helped revive the works of Bach, which had fallen from musical favor during his lifetime, has clearly earned his place in the classical pantheon. ◀
Hans Baldung Grien:
Death and the Maiden, 1518-1520