January 25, 2013
A Woman's Life With Time to Enchant
Real time and musical time unspool on their own, unconnected clocks. A Mahler symphony that might take an hour or more to perform can both accelerate the precious seconds of mortality racing by and widen out into a measureless eternity. An indifferently performed page of that same composer, by contrast, can drag things down to a tedious, ticking crawl.
The title work in the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s winter concert at the Paramount Theatre came in at under a half hour. But Richard Danielpour’s A Woman’s Life, an ardent and varied setting of seven poems by Maya Angelou, was the most expansive work on a program that opened with Beethoven’s Lenore Overture No. 3 and closed, after intermission, with Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.
The sense of scale in the Danielpour-Angelou Life, in part, is programmatic. In a text that comprises a kind of female answer to Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It, the poems span the speaker’s experience from the ebullient “Little Girl Speakings” (“Ain’t nothing prettier’n my dollie”) to the solitary musings of a woman looking back from her “ailing bed” in “Many and Many More.” Along the way come the exhilaration and disappointment of adolescence, new love, “big cars/going nowhere fast” and aging.
Danielpour tracks the heart-on-the-sleeve directness of Angelou’s lines with his open-hearted, colorful and sometimes frankly sentimental settings. His melodies unfold from the lush, spacious innocence of childhood through the calypso agitation of dawning sexuality to the woozy, jazzy fever-dream of barrooms and those big cars.
This Woman’s Life reaches its fullest flowering in “Let’s Majeste,” when Angelou’s language and Danielpour’s response to it reach a peak of wisdom, celebration and a poignant awareness of life’s transitory joys. As the speaker addresses her beloved — “And coupled we’ll await/the ages’ dust to cake my lids again” — the orchestra answers with a gorgeous, anthem-like solemnity. The poem’s quizzical ending earns one of those sweet, unresolved chords that Poulenc sometimes employs.
Then, in the mordant “My Life Has Turned to Blue” that follows, the music tactfully recedes, with spare textures sustained over a haunting subliminally sustained pedal-point. A harp and vibraphone strike up a far-off, gently syncopated conversation that captures the poem’s distant, wintery chill. “The once green laws/glisten now with dew. Red robin’s gone,/Down to the South he flew.”
The orchestra, under Music Director Michael Morgan’s sensitive hand, played with tenderness, verve and expressive grace throughout.
Danielpour composed the piece in 2007 for soprano Angela Brown, who performed at the Paramount with dramatic, occasionally overwrought flair. Ranging from girlish playfulness to coy flirtatiousness to arms-wide exaltation, the singer let it all out. Her singing was richly textured and often arresting, but diction was a consistent problem. Many lines were buried by Brown’s heavy vibrato and exclamatory delivery.
Still, the marriage of text and music came across, right up to the wistful, gently arching final lines. The orchestra, under Music Director Michael Morgan’s sensitive hand, played with tenderness, verve and expressive grace throughout.
The Beethoven and Berlioz staples yielded less satisfying results. The high contrasts and building urgency of the Lenore Overture No. 3 were undermined by some ragged work in the woodwinds and an unsteady, occasionally fibrous string sound. Morgan rallied his forces later and closed with steely fervor, but the piece’s episodes never fully cohered.
Symphonie Fantastique, a work that’s every bit as programmatic as A Woman’s Life without a word of text, occupied the second half of the program. Rallying from their spotty showing in the Beethoven, the woodwinds shone the brightest here, with Denis Harper’s plangent English horn a notable pleasure. The brasses declaimed decisively, and the strings played with lyricism and warmth, albeit inconsistently, along the way.
But Morgan never created an overall architecture or consistently effective scene painting. Berlioz’ drama mounted briefly, then leached away. The first movement, depicting the hero’s vibrant dreams, came off as curiously dry and disengaged. The ball scene was lead-footed and lugubrious. “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches Sabbath” were more sharply etched and rhythmically charged, but never quite as frantic and desperate as they might have been.
Poised in the middle was the beautifully drawn “Scene in the Fields,” a showcase for the choice woodwinds. The long lines wove and twisted together enticingly. Phrases echoed in haunting, rippling ways. There wasn’t enough time, it seemed, to take all the enchantment of this languid interlude in.
Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Recent CD Reviews
Gardiner: Bach Cantatas
John Wilson Orchestra: Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies
Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces
Emanuel Ax: Variations