ASO principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles. (video frame/ASO)

Review: Sir Donald Runnicles leads the ASO in a fresh, engaging program featuring mezzo Kelley O’Connor

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
April 1, 2021

Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor and pianist
Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
Benjamin BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge
Clause DEBUSSY: Trois Chansons de Bilitis
Carlos SIMON: An Elegy: A Cry From The Grave
Richard WAGNER: Wesendonck Lieder (arr. Henze)

Mark Gresham | 2 APR 2021

I greatly admire the music of Benjamin Britten and at times adore it, so was delighted to see his music programmed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a second concert in a row in their “Behind the Curtain” virtual concert series. Even more so I was happy to see that its placement in Thursday evening’s program, led by ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and featuring mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, was moved from third to opener.

It was an astute artistic choice to swap the originally advertised placements of Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge and  An Elegy: A Cry From The Grave by Atlanta composer Carlos Simon, to the benefit of both works and shape of the concert overall. The order on the video itself must have been finalized relatively  late, as it also differs from that in the down-loadable program book, in which the notes for Britten’s music is last.

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Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10, written for string orchestra in 1937, was the work that brought Britten to international attention, and for good reason. The emphatic pair of pizzicato opening chords, pedal bass note and emotionally stirring gestures which open its Introduction and Theme immediately grab the attention. Bridge was Britten’s teacher, and each of the 10 variations represents a specific facet of Bridge’s personality, as viewed Britten’s personal perspective: integrity (1. Adagio), energy (2. March) charm (3. Romance), humor (4.Aria Italiana) and so on.

In a sense, one might say it is a set of reverse variations, in that the theme is treated in a somewhat fanciful manner in its original presentation at the beginning, and then only at the end, after all of the variations, is it given its clearest, most substantive statement, giving the piece a feeling of completeness and closure.

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Britten thoroughly demonstrates his capability in a diversity of styles throughout, including imitations of composers such as Stravinsky, Rossini and Ravel, but the whole felt very unified. Although there were times when I might have wished a little less pause between some variations, the work was a compelling performance in which Runnicles and the ASO performed with great enthusiasm and energy.

Then came a switch of gears from orchestral concert to the intimacy of recital with Trois Chansons de Bilitis, sung by O’Connor with Runnicles at the piano

The origin of the texts of these three songs involves a rather substantial (and clever) academic fraud instigated by one Pierre Louÿs, who in 1894 published a book, Les Chansons de Bilitis (“Songs of Bilitis”), a collection of erotic poetry that he claimed were translations of Ancient Greek poems a woman named Bilitis, supposedly a courtesan and contemporary of the Archaic Greek female poet Sappho. But the entire volume of 143 prose poems was a fraud – one which fooled even expert scholars. In spite of the fact that they proved entirely concocted by Louÿs himself, they are still deemed important literature.

O'Connor and Runnicles perform "Trois Chansons de Bilitis" by Claude Debussy. (video frame/ASO)

O’Connor and Runnicles perform “Trois Chansons de Bilitis” by Claude Debussy. (video frame/ASO)

Louÿs and composer Claude Debussy were both members of of “The Mardistes,” a circle of high-power creative friends met weekly at the home of Stéphane Mallarmé, and included such power-house figures Oscar Wilde, Rilke, Yeats, Monet, Renoir and the like. In 1897, Debussy set three of the poems to song. (Debussy also wrote an instrumental work with the same title, for flutes, harps and celesta, but it was a different piece entirely.)

Debussy’s modal harmonies and spacious textures in the piano part give these songs a certain sense of both antiquity and gentle modernity at once — akin to some of his piano Preludes.

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The website of native Atlanta composer Carlos Simon lists his An Elegy: A Cry From The Grave as a work for string quartet, the way it was originally composed, but in this concert the five-minute work was performed by string orchestra, which gives it a lusher, more full-bodied romantic character. Under Runnicles’ baton, one could imagine a comparability of character with, say, Elgar, but a certain American mixed sense of tragic and hopeful at the same time. One has to wonder whether the warmly elegiac orchestral version of the more intimate quartet is the more suitable for a given context. But in the this concert, as the third piece in the program, this string orchestra version had the right moment and breathing space for its serious and thoughtful expression. In the composer’s own words:

Atlanta composer Carlos Simon. (courtesy of ASO)

Atlanta composer Carlos Simon. (courtesy of ASO)

“This piece is an artistic reflection dedicated to those who have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power; namely Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The stimulus for this composing piece came as a result of prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announcing that a selected jury had decided not to indict police officer, Daren Wilson after fatally shooting an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.”

While that particular statement was printed in the program, Mr. Simon was giving opportunity to expand upon his inspiration and intentions for the piece in the video, speaking directly to the viewers in a segment that preceded its performance.

Commonly known as the Wesendonck Lieder, Richard Wagner’s settings of five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of his patrons, were composed while he was working on his opera Tristan und Isolde.

Published with the title Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (“Five poems for a female voice”), the author of the texts was unattributed in the first edition. There is also question as to whether the familiar order of the songs, as first listed in that edition, is indicative of an actual song cycle or whether they are just individual songs simply gathered together. The accepted order for performance, however, is as in the printed music:

“Der Engel” (“The Angel”)
“Stehe still!” (“Be still!”)
“Im Treibhaus – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde” (“In the Greenhouse”)
“Schmerzen” (“Sorrows”)
“Träume – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde” (“Dreams”)

What is certain is that Wagner wrote them for voice and piano, and only later orchestrated “Träume” for violin and chamber orchestra for a performance on Mathilde’s birthday in 1857. All five songs were scored for voice and large orchestra by conductor Felix Mottlin 1893 – the version with which O’Connor has sung before and with which Runnicles is totally familiar.

But under the current pandemic limitations, those would not have been possible for this concert. Instead, the ASO turned to a version for voice and chamber orchestra created in 1976 by German composer Hans Werner Henze.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, conductor Donald Runnicles and the ASO perform Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder" in a chamber orchestra version by Henze. (video frame capture /ASO)

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, conductor Donald Runnicles and the ASO perform Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” in a chamber orchestra version by Henze. (video frame capture /ASO)

The parts are highly individuated, with some unusual wind registrations, but what may have been most surprising was that the keys were a third lower than the originals – though O’Connor did not say whether a major or minor third in a recorded video conversation between herself, Runnicles and ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou about the Wesendonck Lieder that was aired just before its performance.

A third lower is a big adjustment. However, there is a clue to Henze’s choice of keys, and why the “a third lower” in question would be minor third.

In the published first edition, the key of the opening song “De Engel” is G major, as it is in at least two other editions. However, there exists a 1921 edition from C.F. Peters “for lower voice” in which “Der Engel” is in E major – a minor third lower, as is the case for all of the songs. Perhaps it is this edition from which Henze chose to work in making his arrangement for voice and chamber orchestra. At the very least, it shows a long-standing precedent for the lower key.

ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou discusses Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder" with O'Conner and Runnicles. (video frame/ASO)

ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou discusses Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” with O’Conner and Runnicles. (video frame/ASO)

Runnicles,  remarked about what a revelation Henze’s score was for him on first encounter in rehearsal: “Initially I looked at this score and I thought: My goodness, are these the same songs that I know so well?”

He went on to say how Henze’s orchestrations are “nothing short of revelatory” in terms of how he has used the chamber orchestra to produce “the most exotic sounds” including gorgeous divided strings and less-than-orthodox choices of winds.

Listening to the performance confirms that Henze has produced a stunningly beautiful, colorful orchestration of Wagner’s music, and O’Connor’s voice in the lower key was gorgeous, warmly glowing , and superbly well-balanced with the orchestra in the audio. Even if under non-pandemic circumstances Runnicles would choose to conduct the full orchestral version, Henze’s chamber version is totally first-class. ■