Love Shards of Sappho at RBA

Today’s free noon-hour concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre (the upper lobby of the Four Seasons Centre) offered a rich pairing of matched works, presented by the Array Ensemble & a pair of sopranos.  Today feels especially like a preparation for Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe, an opera that gets its world premiere October 20th with the Canadian Opera Company.  A concert like this one feels like a win-win partnership, exposing the magic of Array’s music to a broader audience, helping COC fans to explore outside their usual comfort zone, while helping introduce a style of music we will be encountering shortly.

Composer Linda Catlin Smith

The first work was Linda Catlin Smith’s Hieroglyphs (1998), using violins, cello & percussion and soprano Brooke Dufton.  I’m tempted to look up the meaning of “hieroglyph”, given that the text was assembled from definitions in dictionaries dating from 1859, 1906 and 1939.  I think it’s fair to say that the text aims to capture something from another time, not unlike the picture-words embedded in a wall as hieroglyphics.  That notion of a fixed paraphrase –something embedded in a wall—places the composition beyond the usual realm of interpretation.  Sure, Dufton sings, and Array’s Artistic Director Rick Sacks led the players through the score.  Yet we’re not in that kind of exuberant vivid enactment of life, not experiencing opera nor even a ballad or song, but into a reified place of reflection and ideas about things.  It’s a quiet place, one where the singer is a gentle medium, and you wouldn’t expect ringing high notes.  There were indeed two songs (as I recall: if they should even be called “songs”) that took Dufton to each extreme of her range, but it was a calm traversal of that remote place, done without drama or tension.

Array Artistic Director & Conductor Rick Sacks

As this is my first concert of the season I may be overly fulsome in my response simply because I have missed these daylight explorations.  At one point an ambulance siren added a charming obbligato voice to the composition we were hearing.  Both pieces on the program dialled the dynamics down several notches, quieter than what most of us usually experience, especially in an opera house, where virtuosity usually manifests itself via extroversion and flamboyance.  I have to wonder if virtuosity is merely out of fashion or completely over, listening to this mature kind of expression, as though the species has outgrown ego and the performer’s egomania,  the need to belt or blast, and instead is in a tranquil place of reflection.

One can dream.

While this might be the longest such concert I’ve ever been to (the COC concerts normally start at noon and end before 1:00, whereas this one went past 1:00): I didn’t want it to end.  I believe any art implies an interface, as we learn how to watch & listen in the encounter.  I experienced a kind of altered reality, surprised at how the time had gone, and listening extra carefully to every quiet little nuance.  I have to think that if I could have gone back to the beginning with the ear I had at the end, I would have been more appreciative, more sensitive. I hope i remember this when i see the opera later this month.

I think –but can’t be sure—that Smith’s composition was the longer one on the program, at least based on the number of words in the program.   Yet I totally lost my sense of time, listening to the second composition, Barbara Monk Feldman’s The Love Shards of Sappho(2001).  I was reminded of the way I felt the first time I heard the ending to Mahler’s “Der Abschied”, the last of the songs in his Lied von der Erde, with its repeated patterns of notes, and oh so gradual diminuendo, as though one were lost in a slow sunset that is a long goodbye.  She might hate the comparison, given that I am speaking of a piece with a telos and a genuine sense of ending, whereas I think Feldman’s piece has even more of a labyrinthine quality: where we are very gently disoriented, among very soft sonorities, safely enclosed and protected.

At the risk of projecting –in a program with two women singing works by two women composers—I find myself embracing the alternative that I think they present to the masculine option, where we are in a realm of soft sounds that are not required to be explicit or dramatic, where the expression seems to transcend ego.  We are on the boundaries of meaning, sound for the sake of sound, beautiful sounds that signify, but also, sounds that simply are.  The chunks of the various words are genuinely shards, as though the words were fragmented.  Is this merely the arbitrary syntax of the composition & its procedures, or rather the fragmentation of experience itself? Or of love? I can’t say.  There is also the element of history –again—as we might wonder if Sappho’s text, paraphrased millennia later in this form, must inevitably shatter, an encounter across distances of miles & years, meaning failing like a soap bubble stretched too far.

Feldman’s piece is for a violin, clarinet, piano & percussion, plus soprano Ilana Zarankin, who sang with such remarkable softness for such a long time, I went into an altered state.  I am reminded of what Phillip Addis said in our recent interview, which now makes a great deal of sense:

Singing Pyramus and Thisbe is challenging not in its virtuosity but in its minimalism. In rehearsal we are striving for such a spare aesthetic that we are having to let go of habit, ego and expectation in order to participate in any given moment. There is very little dynamic variation and the range of my part is just an octave, meaning that any move towards the extremes of these narrow parameters is more deeply felt, like one wave on otherwise still waters.

I can’t wait to see Feldman’s opera  later this month.

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2 Responses to Love Shards of Sappho at RBA

  1. Pingback: Array Ensemble in the RBA | operaramblings

  2. Pingback: Hannigan conducts the Toronto Symphony | barczablog

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