Performance Tuesday, March 29, 2011 | 7:30 PM

Jessica Rivera
Molly Morkoski

Zankel Hall
Rivera is a “stylish and radiant” soprano who's best known for the “luminous” presence she brings to roles in contemporary operas such as Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar and John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, says The New York Times. With the Ensemble Meme and pianist Morkoski, she performs music by Mark Grey and also sings a Schumann song cycle.
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ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810–1856) Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42

A Contested Cycle

“Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, / ’Tis woman’s whole existence,” said Byron in Don Juan; the poetic cycle Frauenliebe und -leben by French aristocrat Louis-Charles Adélaïde de Chamisso de Boncourt, or Adelbert von Chamisso, could be construed as being in accord with that peculiarly masculine view of women. According to some, the “female” poetic voice in this cycle is actually male, and the work is meant to teach women how the paterfamilias of the day wished to be worshipped by his wife. According to others, the poems are actually in sympathy with the emerging women’s movement because the fictive woman, not the husband, is the narrator. Chamisso—a botanist, linguist, and world traveller as well as a poet—was hailed in his own day as a champion of women. Obedience to one’s husband of the sort delineated here was an expected aspect of 19th-century marriage. Listeners will make up their own minds on the matter; that Schumann saw in these words the occasion for great musical beauty is undeniable.

Songs of a Woman’s Love and Life

In the “Amen” chords of the first measure of “Seit ich ihn gesehen,” we hear the nameless woman’s reverence for the man she loves but believes is beyond her reach, hence the slight touches of darkness and sadness in this music. Schumann had a passion for Bach, and he channels Baroque tradition in this sarabande-like song (the sarabande was a Baroque dance in triple meter with the second and third beats often tied, usually quite grave in nature).

As long as the beloved man is happy with someone he loves, someone who is worthy of him, his female companion rejoices in his good fortune and weeps only in secret distress. She is trying to do the right thing in “Er, der Herrlichste von Allen”—but finds it incredibly painful. Schumann was prone to invent wordless extensions of poetic meaning in his piano postludes, and this one is exquisite: In the contrapuntal strands that drift downward from the high treble register, we hear the wistful dissolution of her dream of love.

Somewhere between the second song and “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben,” he has declared his love for her, and she is astonished, overwhelmed, not quite sure it is real. We hear her grow up in the course of this song, with its shifting moods and changing tempos; the loud, rapid astonishment at the start is succeeded by the somewhat slower repetition of his words to a rising melody, as if in rising wonder. “I can hardly grasp it, hardly believe it,” she repeats over and over; the final repetition is preceded by a remarkable little piano interlude, rocking back and forth between different levels as if to say “He loves me, he loves me not,” before at last accepting that this wonder is true.

“To love him, serve him, belong wholly to him,” the woman sings passionately in the middle of “Du Ring an meinem Finger” as she contemplates her engagement ring and forthcoming marriage. This was the accepted model for matrimonial love at the time, and the strong-minded Clara Wieck, who married Schumann—no pushover, she—says such things in her letters to Robert. All real love has a component of serving another person’s well-being, with the reward in seeing oneself transfigured in the other’s gaze. Schumann meant for this fourth song to be the mirror of the second, the two sharing the same key, some of the same harmonies, and the “heartbeat” chords in the right hand (in the interior of this song).

In “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern,” she sings to her sisters as they help her with her bridal dress. This song of rejoicing is shared with those women to whom she can safely confess her sexual desire for her beloved and his for her. Near the close, there is a momentary touch of melancholy as she bids her siblings farewell, but happiness resumes its sway as she goes to her husband. The wedding march we hear at the end owes a debt of gratitude to Felix Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In “Süßer Freund, du blickest,” the woman tells her bewildered husband, who has found her both weeping and smiling, that she is pregnant. This is the only song where he is present, and Schumann disposes the piano part at times as a dialogue between treble and bass registers to tell of his support for her. It is in the piano that she whispers her glad tidings into his ear, the music rising in mini-waves of dawning realization, followed by a tender dialogue between her melody and his cello-like wordless phrases in the left hand.

Now there is even more love in the picture, that of a mother for her infant daughter, whom she nurses in “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust.” The two chords at the start—one loud, one soft—open the doors of the bedchamber and allow us access to this intimate scene, unique in German song. In another of Schumann’s marvelously expressive postludes, we hear waves of tender maternal feeling or the child being swung up and down—or perhaps both.

The single ferocious minor chord at the start of “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” could hardly be more of a shock after the previous song. Schumann knew that in the whirlwind of emotions we feel when someone beloved dies and leaves us is accusatory anger and a sense of betrayal. Here, the initial bitterness gives way to more inward grief and, finally, to one of Schumann’s most heart-stopping compositional decisions: the wordless return of the first song in the postlude. Only the accompaniment, not the vocal line, returns—half a song for a life deprived of half of its meaning. We are meant to hear the slight musical “bump,” the transition from the present to the past as she remembers the start of it all, eight songs and a lifetime ago.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862–1918) Ariettes oubliées

A “Musicien Français” and His Verlaine Songs

The great poet Paul Verlaine despised the term “Symbolist,” but whatever his disdain for being pigeonholed in any way, he shared with other contemporary writers the love of nuance and suggestion, of whatever was indefinite and mysterious, of fleeting moments of feeling. Anything didactic was rejected, along with naturalism, realism, and ostentatious grandiloquence; the poetic results in the Romances sans paroles of 1874 were an invitation to music.

The mélodie, or French art song, was one of Debussy’s favorite genres, especially in his early maturity. A wry tale accompanies the later title for the set: The public and the critics ignored the songs on their first outing in print, so Debussy plucked the ironic title “Forgotten little airs” from Verlaine’s volume for the republication in 1903. The set is dedicated “To Miss Mary Garden, an unforgettable Mélisande, this music (already a trifle old) in affectionate and grateful homage.” This great Scottish soprano, a lead singer at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, sang the title role in the premiere of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande of 1902.

Unforgettable “Forgotten Airs”

“It” in the first song, “C’est l’extase,” is the aftermath of lovemaking, its faint shudders and tremors evoked in images from Nature. Debussy found the perfect musical expression for the complex emotions post-orgasm: sated, slightly melancholy, tender, dreamy. He even re-enacts in memory the physical ecstasy just passed: We can almost see two bodies coming together at the words “Cela ressemble au cri doux / Que l’herbe agitée expire” as two melodic lines converge, one ascending, one descending. Languor lent itself to one crucial aspect of Debussy’s musical mission: to replace the goal-driven forward impetus of German music in the Wagnerian manner with a new aesthetic, one that emphasizes novel timbres and textures. We also hear his unique way with prosody in melodies molded to the rhythms and stresses of the French language.

The repeated figure in the piano throughout “Il pleure dans mon coeur” suggests, in stylized manner, the pitter-patter of rain. This is one element in the music of “ennui,” a form of lassitude and despondency without any known cause (a very turn-of-century mood). Verlaine underscores the mystery when his persona exclaims, “What?! No one has betrayed me?” in a recitative that momentarily stops the rainfall.

In “L’ombre des arbres,” Debussy shrouds the tonality in the musical equivalent of the poem’s mist, smoke, and shadows. After the weary murmuring at the beginning, the stratospheric leaps of despair for the “weeping of drowned hopes” are electrifying.

After so much languor, ennui, and despair, “Chevaux de bois” brings a burst of liveliness. Like the wooden horses on the carousel, life’s circus also turns and turns as time passes. The transformation of the buoyant music of the beginning into something slower and more wistful at song’s end, when night falls and the church bell begins to ring, brings to the fore what is most profound in Verlaine’s words.

In “Green,” we trace the course of a lover’s rendezvous, from the young man’s (somehow we know that he is young) arrival with his offerings of greenery and his heart to the languor that follows after “the lovely storm.” In the delicate figures that swing up and down in the piano at the start, we hear all of youthful love’s exuberance.

Spleen” is the earlier 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire’s word for a darker version of ennui, here even more fraught by the persona’s desperate passion and his fear that the beloved might leave him. Daringly, Debussy has the singer chant Verlaine’s first couplet in a lower register, such that the desperate cry, “I am weary of everything,” is truly shattering. The persona immediately descends back into lassitude at the end.

MARK GREY (b. 1967) Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels) for Soprano, Piano, and Chamber Orchestra

A Premiere for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

That 2011 is a momentous year is an understatement: The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy brings an array of commemorations, including a remarkable new work commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and Meet the Composer. Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels) is a work of great power and originality whose creators hope to build bridges to greater understanding and to invite reflection on the decade following a day none of us will ever forget.

About Mark Grey, Niloufar Talebi, and Ensemble Meme

Originally from San Francisco, Mark Grey made his Carnegie Hall debut as a composer with the Kronos Quartet in 2003. His solo, ensemble, and orchestral music has been performed in such venues as the Sydney Opera House, Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, the Barbican Centre in London, and Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam, as well as the Ravinia, Cabrillo, Other Minds, Perth International, and Spoleto festivals. His work Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio was written when he was composer-in-residence with the Phoenix Symphony for its 2007–2008 season, and has been recorded on Naxos. Earlier this month, a new work, Mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon), based on a Korean subject, had its premiere at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with violinist Jennifer Koh and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and chamber orchestra. Grey was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in January 2011 to write a fanfare for orchestra, and will create another large work for the orchestra in 2013, in addition to a new work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic that same year. For more than two decades, Grey has worked with composer-performers John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Kronos Quartet as a sound designer. His creations have been seen and heard throughout most major concert halls, theaters, and opera houses worldwide.

Mark Grey’s collaborator in this project is Niloufar Talebi, born in London to Iranian parents. Her works as writer, award-winning translator, and multimedia artist include an anthology of poetry in translation entitled Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, 2008); a DVD of poetry videos, Midnight Approaches (2006); and the theater works Four Springs (2004), ICARUS/RISE (2007), and The Persian Rite of Spring (2010).

The Ensemble Meme takes its name from the word meme, an idea virus that enters the culture and transforms it through its presence. Some memes survive the test of time, while others are revealed as being merely trends. Ensemble Meme strives to create programs in which audiences experience how the music of significant composers from the past influences how we hear contemporary music, and vice-versa. While “love and life” is admittedly a very broad category, all three of tonight’s works explore this most crucial theme of them all in different ways.

The Story of Ātash Sorushān

Ātash Sorushān is a story about love and connection. Its two larger-than-life beings, Mana and Ahsha, dwell in separate realms, each convinced of their supreme power. In an all-out collision, as their mighty outward facades crumble, a transcendent final movement begins with the realization that in our moments of vulnerability, we are one. How can a devastating event between two dominant forces become a Ground Zero for love? How can we better understand our fellow human beings?

The Background of Ātash Sorushān

This work brings ancient Eastern traditions in contact with modern and universal concerns. Mana is the Oceanic and Persian term for the divine life force that embodies everything, and Ahsha is an Avestan term for truth/existence in Zoroastrian theology. (Avestan is an East Iranian language known from its written form in the Avesta, the ancient Iranian scriptures.) Fire, considered an agent of truth and an essential component of this venerable religion, is the physical domain of Ahsha, the divine archangel. While Mana and Ahsha are not personified in their traditions, Niloufar Talebi re-imagined them as characters by marrying their philosophical concepts with human characteristics. Talebi’s title names have ancient antecedents as well: Ātash is the Persian word for fire, essential for the destruction and renewal of Mana, Ahsha, and all that they represent, while Sorushān is the plural form of Sorush (in the singular, the proper name of a messenger angel, like Gabriel, who presides over the beginning and end of the world, and who fights the demons threatening to extinguish the world’s fire, passion, and truth).

Fire Angels is divided into four scenes in which the electronic soundscapes help us differentiate between the two characters. In the first, Invocation, we meet “Mana, the beautiful daughter of light” and “Ahsha, son of ancient empires proud.” Mana’s sound world is dry and rhythmically firm, while Ahsha’s character is marked by more florid vocal writing. In the second scene, Voyage, Ahsha speeds across the seas on phoenix wings to his collision with Mana, who chronicles the “roaring hurricane” created by their clash, the “vortex of sound and flesh / In the bright blue morning”—we all remember just such a morning 10 years ago.

As we move closer to the Transformation, both angels realize that “shadows within” made them abandon the nurture of life (Mana) and the oath of rightness (Ahsha), and both resolve to go back to the cradle of being to begin anew in loving union; we hear their sonic worlds superimpose. By the Restoration, the musical language of the two characters is united in a celebration of “the tenacity of our transforming souls.” In this final scene, we hear an excerpt from the “Hymns to the Earth” in the Avesta and, at the close, a verse in Persian by the Iranian modernist poet Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980), as translated by Niloufar Talebi and included in the original libretto. Sepehri’s poetry mingled Western concepts with Eastern in poetry marked by great concern for the highest human values: This is a perfect final quotation for Fire Angels.
Susan Youens © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert and the Pure Voice series are sponsored by the Jean & Jula Goldwurm Memorial Foundation in memory of Jula Goldwurm.