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Winter Journey on Mother's Day

May 10, 2014

Florian BoeschAs if welcoming God and apple pie with madness, baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau brought their brilliant interpretation Schubert’s stark Winterreise (Winter Journey) to golden-toned Weill Hall at Sonoma State University on a sunny Mother’s Day afternoon. Unintentionally defying both the elements and American mythology — the Austrian and Brit had performed the cycle in Carnegie Hall just two nights before, and this, presumably, was what scheduling allowed — the duo did far more than numbly plod through the implausible snow. Seizing Schubert’s every word and note as an opportunity to ruminate deeply on the human condition, the men created one of the most believable excursions into despair, desperation and madness I have ever witnessed.

After the concert, which ended with a virtually unanimous standing ovation, Boesch told me that everything in his life surfaced during this specific Winterreise. His recent time with his wife and children, what he ate for dinner, the contrast between Carnegie’s darkened, quasi-Old World interior and Weill’s Golden West illumination — all came into play as he and Martineau explored familiar music under completely new circumstances.

Boesch’s wandering, love-torn stranger was no stark raving lunatic. As opposed to the man in the asylum who frequently beats his head against the wall, screams for hours at the moon, and throws plastic flowerpots until he must be restrained, he was the one who, much of the time, simply stood at the door of the ward and turned and turned the doorknob as if, perhaps, if he turned it just one more time, it would finally open. It didn’t, of course, because that’s not what happens in Schubert’s 24-song cycle. Instead, that Boesch and Martineau opened a different door into a profound state of hopelessness that, despite any number of fits, starts, and short cries of desperation, ultimately offered no way out.

Malcolm MartineauMany artists have commented on the profound silences in Schubert’s music. There are places where the music literally stops, yet inexorably continues through the pause.

In Boesch and Martineau’s Winterreise, any number of unexpected pauses surfaced with increasing frequency as the cycle progressed. In the hands of lesser artists, they might have seemed artificial, even precious. But here, each pause presented an opportunity for artists and audience to look around, both inside and out, and feel what was at the core.

Sometimes the pauses came in the midst of very slow slogs. When the artists resumed — not that they ever really stopped — sometimes they moved faster, even for only a line or two, and sometimes they continued at the same heart-breaking, slow pace. In a song such as “Einsamkeit” (Loneliness), the pauses and slowdowns made painfully clear that Boesch’s protagonist was no longer functioning in temporal reality.

For some audience members, the profound beauty of Boesch’s voice and Martineau’s playing was not enough to carry them through. Perhaps because they were unprepared to journey so deeply on a sunny afternoon, or because what was revealed was too painful to dwell in for such an extended period of time, at least a dozen people left. As the duo journeyed into the 20th song, “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost), and Boesch sang in translation, “I have truly done nothing wrong / That I should shun mankind. What foolish desire drives me into the wastelands?” several more people left. Then, in the graveyard that is “Das Wirtshaus” (The Inn), one woman seemed to agree that all the rooms were taken, and walked out in the middle.

Boesch and Martineau’s response to both music and surroundings was to probe even deeper. Each fed off the other. Martineau seemed to tiptoe through parts of “Letzte Hoffnung” (Last Hope) as if exploring the song for the first and last time. Occasionally Boesch’s fist beat against his leg. In “Mut!,” his loud cries seemed to defy the world.

Finally, the three suns of the penultimate song, “Die Nebensonnen” (The Phantom Suns) ceded without pause to the finality of “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man). In this haunting inconclusive close, Boesch and Martineau seemed to finally let go, as if nothing could make a difference. The organ will keep grinding, the knob will keep turning, and the despair will remain.

The final notes were sounded as if nothing had really ended. Yet, suddenly, it was over. All that remained was the opportunity to reflect on the miracle that in the center of the deepest pain, one can still find beauty and affirmation.

Boesch’s debut recital marked another, equally troubling ending. Under the Green Music Center’s new Co-Executive Directorship of Zarin Mehta and Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, Weill Hall’s 2014-2015 has season jettisoned all classical vocal recitals. You’ll get plenty of major name artists, most of who have been visiting the Bay Area for many years. But for voice, unless you count American Bach Soloists’ Messiah or the Curtis Chamber Orchestra concert that includes three songs by Robert Spano, you’ll need to turn to Audra McDonald, Bobby McFerrin, Laurie Anderson, the Nile Project’s Meklit Hadero, Lila Downs, or the young Cecile McLorin Salvant. Like Schubert’s wanderer, lovers of classical vocal music have been left out in the cold.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.