Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beauty salon

Moritz von Schwind's "Schubertiade."

Back in the day (that is, back in the Viennese nineteenth-century day), musical evenings with Franz Schubert were so common they had their own name - "Schubertiades" (a drawing of such a gathering by a Schubert contemporary is above). People are sometimes surprised to learn that the young genius made his name in people's living rooms rather than the public stage, but in fact his musical output only occasionally made it to the concert hall. His operas saw a smattering of failed productions, and the symphonies sometimes made it to the public ear, but his reputation was built in the salon.

Last weekend the Handel and Haydn Society attempted to conjure something like a latter-day "Schubertiade" on the stage of Jordan Hall, and met with some (if not complete) success. The Society, which is devoted to historically-informed performance, has actually been tinkering for a while with not just the orchestration of its music but the presentation of it as well. The idea is that to really appreciate period music, you have to experience it in its original context. Thus Handel and Haydn concerts of late have turned into somewhat casual, omnibus affairs, like the famously sprawling concerts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and we've been advised that it's quite okay (contrary to modern opinion) to applaud in between movements if we so desire (many people at Sunday's concert took the Society up on that one).

There are arguments to be made against all these propositions, I think, but at the same time they seem harmless enough, and playing nineteenth-century dress-up is actually kind of fun (alas, the fact that it is inevitably "dress-up" undercuts much of the reason for doing it in the first place, but never mind). What came over last weekend, however, was the difficulty of really achieving anything like verisimilitude in this kind of endeavor. The Jordan Hall stage was set with appropriately German-Victorian furniture, and there was even a gesture toward period dress (Susan Consoli looked both bemused and smashing in an early Romantic gown and feathers). An actor - Jim True-Frost (of The Wire fame) - was engaged to interpolate bits of Byron and Shelley into the musical mix, and there were even audience members onstage with the performers (looking a bit out of place as they turned off their cell phones). Nobody served drinks, but I'm sure that's coming.

The trouble was, of course, that the modern assumptions of class and comportment that inevitably arise in a space like Jordan Hall contradict the sociable, aristocratic intimacy that the H&H performers were trying to conjure. I got the impression that this kind of gambit could, perhaps, be pulled off in a smaller setting, perhaps in a Brookline or Wellesley mansion. But in a concert hall, even one as atmospheric as Jordan Hall, the proceedings inevitably become a bit arch.

There were other issues. Jim True-Frost stumbled through his readings, even though some were quite famous (such as "Ode to a Nightingale") and even though he was on-book. Sigh. I get the impression the actors engaged by H&H for these evenings (I've now seen three) don't always take the assignment as seriously as they would a "proper" theatrical performance (at H&H's last such salon, Nikkole Salter of Stick Fly actually forgot the immortal lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 - amusingly, many in the audience murmured the missing couplet for her, from memory). If H&H is going to mix the musical and the poetical, it needs, obviously, to treat one as seriously as the other, with as much rehearsal and shaping given to the poetry as to the music (and maybe more). And let's not risk any more minor celebrities from cable TV, please, at least not when there are classically-trained actors like Will Lebow and Sandra Shipley around (come to think of it, that pair might have just pulled off this assignment).

Okay, enough said (but trust me, somewhere Shelley and Keats are smiling); back to the music. As noted, the concert program, devised by H&H bassist Robert Nairn (at left) was built around Schubert - we got both the "Trout" Quintet and the Lied which inspired its famous variations, as well as the less-often-heard (but still terrific) “Shepherd on the Rock,’’ for soprano, clarinet, and piano. There was also the lovely Andante from Mozart’s "Kegelstatt Trio" for clarinet, piano, and viola.

That was it for the serious music, frankly, although Nairn also programmed a series of lesser, but always diverting, works by the likes of violinist Giovanni Viotti and the operatic composer Rossini. These didn't share any great sympathy with the music of Schubert (or Mozart) but the conceit here was that they were devised for the great double bassist (and salon star) Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti; perhaps not coincidentally, they also allowed Nairn himself a chance to shine, which he did, along with the other H&H players on hand. Soprano Susan Consoli sounded ravishing on “Shepherd on the Rock,’’ which also gave period clarinetist Eric Hoeprich a chance to strut his eloquent stuff, and the Mozart was likewise subtle and affecting. And certainly the performance made a case for period instruments in all these settings - except, perhaps, in the case of the last offering, the "Trout" Quintet. Here it seemed to me that the fortepiano - or at least this fortepiano - came off as deliciously warm, but also a bit blurry (and to tell the truth, pianist Ian Watson was himself a little blurry here and there). Nevertheless, the ensemble was generally in fine form, with spirited turns from Daniel Stepner (whose retirement as concertmaster we still lament!) on violin, and Guy Fishman on cello. Together with Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, these old H&H hands did kindle something of the intimate fire that must have flickered in the original "Schubertiades."