Sindbad goes post-modern
Harold Meltzer + Donald Barthelme = wacky Arabian Night; plus, some glorious Brahms and solid Higdon.
The surreal comedy of Donald Barthelme’s Sindbad (1984) fit nicely with Harold Meltzer’s music Monday evening. Nathan Wesselowski recited the words and the Prometheus Trio played the notes.
In nine exquisitely clever little chapters of prose verging on verse, Barthelme interleaves tales of the daring Sindbad with equally bizarre slices of the drab life of an adjunct and possibly unhinged professor of English. Meltzer, in attendance Monday, scored the recitation specifically and often left gaps for music that disrupted the flow of the text. Wesselowski had to count and come in exactly on time.
That bothered me, at first; I was impatient to hear the rest of the story. But the disruptive rhythm of Meltzer’s approach felt more and more right as the piece went on. The herky-jerky rhythms, odd gestures, plinks, murmurings and exclamations from Stefanie Jacob’s piano, Scott Tisdel’s cello and Timothy Klabunde’s violin came to seem to pick up where the words left off. In particular, Meltzer’s music took on the role of the inchoate thoughts and feelings of Wesselowski’s increasingly agitated adjunct. The gestural, fragmented music is more illustrative, of stormy seas and the like, in the Sindbad chapters. When the washed-ashore adventurer hears a waltz from the tree line of an island, we hear a hint of a waltz through thickets of notes.
The Prometheans opened with Jennifer Higdon’s Pale Yellow and Fiery Red. Yellow disarms with its lyrical simplicity, its sweetly harmonized string melodies and plain piano chords beneath. It’s so simple that even the half-step up to a new key in the middle seems like stepping out for fresh air. I also like the way Higdon let her lyrical theme wander off on a tangent and get lost, as it were, until landing on a confident, declamatory theme that showed the way into the new key. We got back home again thematically, but not tonally. But then, we can never go home again, really. Red is, well, fiery, in a very conventional but satisfying way, with furious scales harmonized in bone-clanking seconds.
Higdon’s and Meltzer’s music calls for a certain bright edge, and Jacob, Tisdel and Klabunde delivered that required brilliant, exuberant quality. Which made the burnished depth and warmth of tone they applied to Brahms’ Trio in C, Opus 87, all the more appealing and fitting.
It’s a matter of touch, of fingers on ivory and bows on strings, and a matter of beautiful pitch. Though Tisdel kept fiddling with tuning all night, in fact the trio was zeroed in. Finding center of pitch is always important but especially critical in Brahms. If you know where the center is, you can measure your vibrato for the most poignant effect. Tisdel and Klabunde did exactly that, but always within the bounds of dignity — this is Brahms, not Tchaikovsky. There ain’t no cryin’ in Brahms.
This program, given at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, where the Prometheus Trio is in residence, ended with a charming encore: Wesselowski singing a Scottish folk song in a genuine Ludwig van Beethoven setting for piano trio. This program will be repeated on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at an unusual start time: 10:30 a.m. Meltzer, the composer, will talk about Sindbad at that time. The music will begin at 11 a.m. For tickets, call 414 276-5760.
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