Valen­tine’s Day date with Death

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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