Friday, June 8, 2012

Dracula makes an appearance at Chamber IX

Hammy hijinks and high hilarity

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Fri, Jun 8, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Have you ever heard a serene solo clarinet do its soulful thing, in both near-total darkness and eerie surround-sound? Or heard Count Dracula say “good evening,” with the usual spooky inflections — but in the wordless voice of a double bass? Well, both things (and more) happened at the Dock Street as part of Wednesday’s ninth chamber series concert. Host Geoff Nuttall told us upfront that this concert was gonna be one of the most memorable of the entire series. And he was right.

All he said about the first number was that it was going to take us on a trip to Scotland. With that, the lights went waay down, and, after a moment of pregnant silence, Todd Palmer’s lovely, lonely clarinet came to us out of nowhere — yet it resounded everywhere. At first, it was impossible to tell just exactly where he was playing from in the theater. The Dock Street’s second-to-none acoustic ambiance made it sound like his playing was coming at us from all sides.

I’m still not completely sure just exactly where he was, but I eventually surmised that he was probably stationed somewhere in the balcony. The music was a short but sweet piece by the popular contemporary Scottish composer, James MacMillan, an apparent excerpt from a longer work entitled Galloway. And, indeed, it took us on a brief but highly idiomatic musical excursion to Galloway, Scotland’s southernmost region. Despite its overall modern impression, the piece’s austere melodic flow couldn’t have come from anywhere else. It was sheer musical magic.

Meanwhile, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, her violinist hubby Daniel Phillips, and cellist Chris Costanza had gathered onstage so that they would be ready to go for Josef (“Papa”) Haydn’s scintillating string Trio in D Major, Op. 38, No. 6, immediately after Todd’s eloquent clarinet intro. Also a rather brief number, its three short movements beguiled its happy listeners non-stop. I’m so glad that Geoff and company are such rabid Haydn freaks. Most of us (even the most knowledgeable classical geeks) have heard only a small percentage of his huge and consistently high-quality output in many genres.

And then it happened: the single most hilarious event I can recall hearing in the nearly 20 years I’ve been reveling in the chamber series’ singular musical delights. And the entire series has long been revered as an inexhaustible wellspring of humor. Jon Deak, the New York Philharmonic’s longtime principal double bass player, definitely had a rare (and pronounced) goofy streak, so he devised a “virtuoso exercise” for his instrument, disguised as a supremely funny musical skit: Lucy and the Count (Love Dreams from Transylvania), a sidesplitting takeoff on the Dracula legend, for his instrument plus string quartet. Each player (all members, save Manzo, of the St. Lawrence Quartet) assumed a different musical role. It was wordless (at least from the musicians), but baritone Tyler Duncan, who has appeared elsewhere in the festival, served as a spooky narrator, complete with the classic “hoo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-HAAAAH” monster laugh.

Tony Manzo (who looks more like an NFL linebacker than a musician) and his eloquent double bass played the role of the evil Count, complete with flowing black cape and fangs. Now imagine tall, rangy violinist Scott St. John portraying the love interest/heroine Lucy while sporting a curly blonde wig and lipstick. I won’t get into particulars on the remaining characters, but each of the musicians onstage had lesser roles to play. Neither will I relate the skit’s ridiculous plot: you had to have been there to comprehend it. Suffice it to say that the so-called “music” unfolded in exaggerated fashion, with every musical horror cliché you’ve ever heard, a-la Hollywood. 

Stringed instruments are particularly adept at simulating human speech, as they did here — and in exaggerated and ridiculously melodramatic fashion. Artificial “smoke” billowed from the stage as they went, plus musical “thunder” on top of “lightning” strikes and fluttering vampire-bat images, courtesy of the theater’s lighting system. Everybody hammed it up royally. Simply know that I can’t recall ever hearing such raucous and protracted laughter (including my own) at Dock Street — ever.

Then it was from one kind of craziness to another — only this time, it was nearly three centuries old. Austrian Baroque-meister Heinrich von Biber, an important predecessor of the supreme master Bach, was not only one of the most famous composers and violin virtuosos of his day, he also provided some of his era’s most notorious musical weirdness. This was accomplished via his use of a violin tuning method known as “scordatura,” or the practice of tuning of one or more of a violin’s stings to different pitches than usual. The result, in performance, was strange but intriguing music that’s unlike anything else you’ve heard from the Baroque era. Biber’s Harmonia-Artificioso-Ariosa, Partita V is a prime example, with its oddball, yet musically fascinating harmonic twists and turns. Host Nuttall and his wife Livia Sohn did the spirited duo-violin honors, with Pedja Muzijevic (harpsichord) and Chris Costanza (cello) holding down the basso continuo duties.                                            

So much for this program’s unique (but delightful) mock-horror and bizarre Baroque stylings. But leave it to Viennese genius Franz Schubert’s “cleansing power” (as Geoff put it) to bring things back to normal with the program’s winning final number: the Duo for Violin and Piano, D 574. While this one hardly qualifies as one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces, it’s still vintage Schubert, chock-full of gorgeous, singing melodies plus ingenious harmonic modulations and sunny character. Livia Sohn’s violin did most of the lovely “singing,” adroitly supported by Stephen Prutsman’s happy-sounding piano. It was a wonderful way to end yet another incredibly varied and entertaining chamber concert.    

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