I went to the Resonant Bodies Festival at Merkin Concert Hall on 9/9/15. I emailed my friends Jere and Dale when I heard about it, knowing that they’re fans of Dawn Upshaw, one of the performers on the bill. I included Richard as a courtesy, but said that my guess was that the music was too clinky and clangy for his taste. Dale wrote back, saying they would also decline - - he thought the music also looked squeaky and farty.
So here’s the question: are Clinky, Clangy, Squeaky, and Farty:
Four of Santa’s reindeer.
Four of the seven dwarves.
Four members of the Manson clan.
It was the first night of the Resonant Bodies Festival, a concert series that supports the growth and evolution of contemporary vocal music and vocal artists (that’s from their website). I was there to hear Dawn Upshaw, a singer I’ve loved for ages, an incomparable artist and a great champion of new music. She shared the program with two other sopranos, Tony Arnold and Lucy Shelton. It turns out they were actually doing three separate recitals, back to back. An interesting idea.
Tony Arnold was first. I have to say what she was wearing, it was a fabulous yet peculiar outfit. A gorgeous navy jacket, worn with a pair of black pants that were leggings below the knee and bloomers above the knee. See what I mean by peculiar - - but they worked for her. Also turquoise high-heeled Mary Janes and two pieces of silver jewelry, the kind I would classify as “statement jewelry”.
She opened with a fascinating piece by Beat Furrer, an abstract duet for soprano and string bass, with the bass often playing more than one note at a time, very high notes, in a wheezy tone. Arnold matched him, though she only sang one note at a time. She then sang three songs Anton Webern, with pianist Jacob Greenberg. They emphasized the playfulness of Webern, something I hadn’t thought possible. That set was a delight. Then they did a set of songs by György Kurtág, which were diverting but not really satisfying. Then more songs along those lines, by Jason Eckardt, David Liptak, and Frederick Gifford.
The highlight of the evening was the New York premiere of “In the Forest of Clocks” from *The Yellow Moon of Andalusia* by George Crumb. I love me some Crumb! This piece featured Greenberg on piano and Arnold not just singing, but also playing the gong and triangle. And Crumb wrote for the piano in his usual imaginative manner, having the pianist strum the strings, making a marvelous WHEEEZH sound - - Crumb also writes imaginatively for the piano played in the traditional manner, some fascinating sounds and harmonies. Greenberg brought all out the colors in the music. This Crumb song was the highlight of the evening because the music itself was so extraordinary: full of strength and absolutely sure of what it was doing.
Her performance concluded with a funny song by Thomas Adès, “Life story”, a setting of a text by Tennessee Williams, written for the unlikely combination of soprano, string bass, and two bass clarinets.
They didn’t have an intermission before the Upshaw segment, just some brief comments by the artistic director of the Resonant Bodies Festival while they reset the stage. Upshaw did two song cycles: the first was by Sheila Silver, *On Loving: Three Songs for Diane Kalish*, written in memory of the late wife of pianist Gilbert Kalish, who was at the piano. The songs were nice enough to listen to, but not great. The third song had a faux Debussy thing going on, which was gorgeous on the one hand but unfortunate on the other: unfortunate that the best music in the piece sounded like someone else. I think the cycle would work better with orchestra, rather than just piano. The colors of the orchestra would probably mask the shallowness of the musical ideas.
The second cycle was *The Cold Pane* by Shawn Jaeger, who audaciously listed his birth year as 1985. It’s a stretch, but I could be his father! Yeesh. The piece is written for soprano, clarinet, violin, mandolin, and string bass. The music was a yawn. The one great movement was the middle movement, “Raindrops” - - the instrumentalists knocked on their instruments, rather than played them. The rhythm was involved, and it really did sound like rain.
Upshaw sounded much better than she did the last time I heard her (at BAM a year ago), but she’s still decorating the vocal line with the Upshaw-isms she’s been doing for thirty years, and I’m tired of it. This will not prevent me from hearing her again.
They took an intermission before the third performer, Lucy Shelton. I looked at the program: only one composer I had heard of (Elliott Carter), pieces for unaccompanied voice, or voice and clarinet, or voice with live electronics, or (this is a new one) voice with “nest of percussion”. I looked at the clock: it was 9:15. If I left, I could be home and in bed by 10:15. I didn’t exactly run out of the theater, but I did have a spring in my step.
On the whole, it was an interesting way to spend an evening (and $22) but I wasn’t as impressed as the rest of the audience. I think those resonant bodies are wearing the emperor’s new clothes.