Pianist Seth Knopp, a member of the faculty of the Peabody Institute and the driving artistic force behind the Soundings new music series at the Nasher Sculpture Center, clearly owns a remarkable gift for innovative, theme-centered programming. Friday night’s opening concert of the series’ second season once again demonstrated Knopp’s ability to bring together artists, ideas, and repertoire in ways that add new layers of meaning to every work.
Building around the slightly unwieldy title “Intimate Letters: Cultural Outrage and Personal Tragedy from Mahler to Slam Poetry,” Knopp and his collaborators partly leaned on some of the obvious choices from the iconic repertoire—Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) and Janacek’s “Intimate Letters” String Quartet—for the main course in the evening’s menu. In the Mahler cycle, more well-known in its orchestral version, Knopp and baritone William Sharp presented a beautifully intimate rendition that, stripped of Mahler’s late romantic obsession with symphonic color, runs the gamut from fluent Bach-like counterpoint to Schumannesque lyricism to proto-Schoenbergian dissonance, all aimed at the gentle emotional surrender of the final song. The Parker Quartet likewise presented a beautifully lively and technically flawless reading of the muscular lyricism of the Janacek piece, which successfully melds folk-like melodicism and rhythms to a sharp-edged modernism.
An engaging array of twentieth and twenty-first-century poems and vocal works surrounded these two early twentieth-century masterpieces . Four young poets fromCalifornia(Lloyd Evans, Michael Gallagher, Devonte Robinson, and Dejanique Armstrong) provided a shockwave of verbal energy in improvised and written poetry tied to the theme. Especially apt was Michael Gallagher’s “4th of July,” which references theStocktonmassacre introduced the Mahler songs, and Robinson’s “Letter to My Future Wife,” an amazing poetic exploitation of heteronyms and unstable metaphor. These pieces explored the inherent violence of gender role inAmericain a way that left the polite museum audience of connoisseurs and intellectuals stunned and silent.
Music from the late twentieth century mainstream floated in and around this contemporary poetry. Gyorgy Kurtag’s brilliantly succinct (and letter-like) Microludes for String Quartet provided a sort of musical wallpaper for some brief poetic slamming from the young California poets. Excerpts from Lee Hyla’s <cq>Howl for string quartet and narrator (with baritone Sharp reading the texts by Ginsberg) once again reminded of the shocking truth (still shocking and still true) contained in that poet’s work. John Musto’s lyrical “Litany” for voice and piano (built around what seemed, to my ears, to be a musical reference from Porgy and Bess), with text by Langston Hughes presented a look back at the poetic front lines of an earlier era, while two free-standing songs by Schubert and Schumann (“Der Atlas” and “Wehmut,” respectively) provided a traditional denouement to the sort of evening that redefines the way one experiences music and poetry.