Tom Strini
Prometheus Trio

Sindbad goes post-modern

Harold Meltzer + Donald Barthelme = wacky Arabian Night; plus, some glorious Brahms and solid Higdon.

By - Feb 12th, 2013 01:03 am

From “Arabian Nights Entertainments,” published by Longmans, Green, and Co., London, in 1898, by Andrew Lang (1844-1912). The Color Illustrations are by Rene Bull (1870-1946). Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

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 eternal problem with such narrator pieces is the impossibility of fully attending both music and words at the same time. That was the case through much of Sindbad. Meltzer created gaps and elbowed the music in, which helped. And in a cheeky move, Meltzer left the players tacet for a couple of chapters; he made us miss the music when it was gone. Then he reversed the psychology by reprising the music for “The Beaux-Arts Ball” without the words, alerting us to musical charms we missed the first time around. All in all, Sindbad, from 2004, is very smart and a lot of fun.


Composer Harold Meltzer. Photo courteys of the artist’s website.

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.

Psst. Want to know what the Milwaukee Symphony’s playing in 2013-14, and who the guest artists are? Click here.




0 thoughts on “Prometheus Trio: Sindbad goes post-modern”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I would venture that Sinbad, is a musical equivalent to “insane art”, aka “outsider art” such as that featured not long ago at MAM. The work also has a revolving door effect something like Rod Serling’s treatment, via passage through a door, of one person moving alternately within two worlds which merge frightfully in the last scene. In its compactness and exactitude, I partially agree with Meltzer that Sinbad leaves Enoch Arden in the dust, though Michael York’s recording on the Americus label is worth a listen if you can find it.

    The trio is modest about themselves to the point of bashfulness
    [Stephanie slightly less so–such is the nature of pianists] and it seems unbecoming to give them direct praise to their face though their work is substantial, and as a rule I let admiration and awe be tacit on my way out, smiling at Timothy through the mists while Scott runs for cover.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Tom!! And also Valerie.

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