Andrew Alexander | 21 OCT 2019
An evening of love songs certainly sounds like it would be rosy and cheery enough, but from its opening moments, pianist Brad Mehldau’s new song cycle The Folly of Desire takes shape as a darkly contemplative and dramatic meditation on love, unafraid–just like the great poets whose words provide the lyrics–to put desire’s troubling relationship to power, death, deceit, and violence under the lens.
After seeing each other perform in Germany in 2015, the American jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau and the British tenor Ian Bostridge began a friendly correspondence which eventually materialized into a series of pieces that Meldau wrote with Bostridge in mind. Bostridge and Mehldau premiered the new cycle this year, and their tour included a stop in Atlanta for a strong and appealing performance of the new work at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on October 18.
The cycle opens with Blake’s “O Rose thou art sick” (giving some indication of the cycle’s aims), a piece marked by bleak soundscapes and surprisingly low, almost growling tones from the normally soaring and youthfully bell-like tenor voice of Bostridge. The cycle surprisingly seems at its strongest when Mehidau occasionally gives in to a sort of melodic prettiness as he does in his lovely setting for Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 147.” His music for e.e. cummings’ “the boys I mean are not refined” has a jauntiness and rhythm that match the poem’s plain-spoken earthiness; here and elsewhere, something of punk rock’s extended middle finger seems to lurk intriguingly just beneath the surface. Jazzy ascending and descending progressions give an interesting, moody touch to the cycle of desire and mistreatment grimly described in Auden’s “Ganymede.”
In all, the many moods, the abstract soundscapes, the several works from Auden, and the references to human folly put me in mind of Stravinsky and Auden’s collaboration “The Rake’s Progress” (Bostridge recorded the role of Tom Rakewell in a 1999 recording for Deautsche Gramophone). But the new piece does not describe a progress or descent, but a meditation, an exploration of familiar and timeless rooms, nicely captured by the spaciousness of Mehldau’s approach.
But the spiky themes and fractured, abstract soundscapes don’t give the new work the sort of instant appeal of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, which formed the second half of the program at Emory. Bostridge explored the many romantic moods with a great actor’s skill and an appealingly modern sensibility, thrilling to watch and to hear. With his winsome visage and slender frame, on stage, Bostridge still suggests a rebellious and romantic youth, a sort of James Dean for the concert hall; in the songs he certainly captured and conveyed the pieces’ many youthful, poetic shades of male energy; from adolescent hurt and petulance, to vulnerability and longing, all gorgeously conveyed with his unaffected, crystalline tenor voice. Special standouts were the lushly hymnlike “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” and his brokenhearted but complicated goodbye to a false love in “Ich grohle nicht.”
The evening reached an apotheosis with three gorgeous encores, which acted as a sort of x-ray into the musical thinking that had motivated the collaboration. First up was the witty and timely Noel Coward song “20th Century Blues,” given a jazzy, humorous if slightly sinister spin with the lyric occasionally changed to “21st Century Blues,” making Coward seem to have rather presciently captured the day’s sense of exhaustion and confusion. There was a touching rendition of Holt Marvell and Jack Strachey’s timeless “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You” and the evening closed with the abiding melancholy of “Everytime We Say Goodbye.”
As Porter famously put it: how strange the change from major to minor. Implicit in the lyric–and in the evening’s performance as a whole–is that, in matters of the heart, there is no major without minor. Elegant and earthy, witty and brassy, jazzy and subdued, major and minor, dark yet hopeful and tender, the evening’s moods captured the many sides of loves, ending on a note of melancholy that lingered. Love is sick, love is blind, love is cruel, but in the end, hooray for love. ■
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and editor. Readers of Creative Loafing have twice voted him Atlanta’s Best Critic in the alt-weekly’s annual “Best of Atlanta” issue, and his features and reviews appear frequently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Alexander Report, his new free email newsletter covering the best the arts in Atlanta have to offer, made its debut in June.