The theme of the last two Friday nights at the UVM Lane Series was music based on improvisation to one extent or another.
In the case of the concert on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009, which featured Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his Ensemble, the direct subject was Turkish music, especially the music from the south of Turkey. In this joyous concert, the audience was treated to authentic instruments - there are six instruments mentioned besides percussion and keyboard, and the keyboard was definitely not the only non-authentic instrument on stage - as well as music based upon the music of a variety of sections of Turkey. The oud developed into the lute in Western civilization. The rest of the traditional instruments were native to Turkey.
The music at its roots is improvisational - that is, there are formulas for developing a musical idea while leaving the basic melody line there for the musicians to acquire and use freely. The music that I heard that night reminded me both in its formulaic approach to a generalized framework within which the musician may improvise, but even in the sounds produced, of classical Indian music, especially the raga, which is a combination of free improvisation within strict forms. The musicians need to know a great deal in order to have the freedom to improvise music.
The result with this ensemble was rhapsodic music that whirled like the dervishes. It was a wonderful evening, and with Tekbilek's son on the program as one of the to percussionists, there was room for a certain emotional content. In fact, the emotions played a great part in the concert, and not to its detriment, but to the essential emotional core of the music. The lyrics of most of the songs were amatory in nature, but within a sound panel that is certainly foreign to the Western air. The obvious plangency - indeed the almost comic sound of the music (to the Western ear) - sounding exceedingly strange to the Western ear.
The audience loved it
The concert Friday night, Feb. 6, 2009, featured improvisation also, by utilizing the improvisation techniques that were well established both among the composers of the time - the 18th century and before - and among the performers of the time. The performers were the Philadelphia-based Baroque ensemble called Tempesta di Mare, and unbelievably active group of individual musicians who somehow find time to constitute this incredibly gifted ensemble.
Gwyn Roberts, the recorder player for the group, during a free concert talk poems directly into on the importance of improvisation in music of Handel's day, especially in the London during Handel's lifetime and that of some of his contemporaries from Italy primarily, but also from Germany. Roberts pointed out that there are four ways of improvising and decorating a musical line, ranging mostly from the simplest to the most ornate. Of course, the more decoration that was put to a line, the more complete had to be the musicians knowledge of the standards of improvisation (if one immediately is reminded of American jazz, one would be on the right track - because, even though the rules for improvisation are measurably different for Turkish music and for classic European music of the 17th and 18th centuries, the fact that there are rules and that they are abided by either by accepting them or by ignoring them (the elephant-in-the-room concept that you can't get away either positively or negatively totally from the rules).
I can't say it does stated improvisational techniques in music by George Friedrich Handel, William Babell, Archangelo Corelli and Rudolph Straube. It was a thoroughly enlightening program without being didactic or pedantic. The joy of the evening came from the connectedness of these five players to the performance practice of the 18th century to such an extent that it is part and parcel of their approach to music of this period. I doubt that there are many if any groups that excel this group's personal or ensemble accomplishments.
It was a low key but exciting evening of perfectly assembled music. It is certainly to be hoped that they will return in the not too distant future.
Briefly Noted: a very happy note crossed my desk this week in the form of an announcement from the Opera Company of Middlebury: the Burlington Chamber Orchestra will now be the official orchestra for this fledgling opera company (this is their fifth or sixth season - probably their sixth). They are certainly building a solid organization brick by brick - which is the only way to go.
Opera in H.D. at Cinema 9
The latest production of the Metropolitan Opera's H.D. series to be shown at Cinema 9 in South Burlington is Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice", an opera that has been out of the Met's repertoire since my teenage years.
Why exactly it has been out of the repertoire is hard to understand, since it provides for only three soloists, chorus, dancers and the orchestra and a conductor. In operatic terms is a rather small-scale work to tackle. It can be performed either in its original form for countertenor (now usually sung by a mezzo or contralto) or in its French version (Gluck's own arranging) for tenor. The Met chose to showcase one of its own, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, whom advertising has been touting as a "voice of the century", and who certainly performed the role admirably.
Bly the certainly has an appropriate voice for the role, since her lower register is uncommonly well-placed. She is physically a bit like a Henry Moore sculpture, and yet she seemed exactly the right person to sing the role, since she was an impassioned Orpheus. I hope the Met will use her in some other mezzo-soprano roles that will be part of a future HD broadcast series, since it is hard to evaluate the "voice of the century" hype as being true on the strength of a single performance. But she certainly can sing and out of this there can be little doubt after hearing her sing the famous aria, "Che far senza Euridice". That she is an accomplished vocal actress is also clear. May we hear more of her, even as soon as next year?
As her Euridice the soprano Danielle De Niese was admirably cast. She has a gorgeous voice which blended with Blythe's mezzo fabulously. She also understands the psychology of the role of Euridice, and the scene between her and Orpheus is tense with her pleading for him at least to look upon her. A perfect performance!
Since I did not write down her name, I can't tell you the name of the soprano who sang the role of Amor, but she managed not only the vocal part with great ease, but she also looked cherubic.
The chorus plays multiple roles, and play them they did with great fervor and when appropriate, ferocity or gentleness. They had no choice but to be individualized as characters from history, since that is the way that I think Mizrahi had costumed them: each of them was a historical character to what exact purpose I failed to be able to discern. The dancers to wear variously costumed, rather more closely to the costuming for the principles than to the chorus. The chorus sang splendidly.
Since Mark Morris was the designer of the production, you could expect visual as well as musical surprises. The costuming by Mizrahi was part of the visual impact of the production, as was the set itself - steel scaffolding that was moved about by people who became permanent silhouettes on the stage. The dancing that Morris chose for the dancers was inventive and, although not period-based, was exciting and appropriate to the essentials of the music and the story.
The orchestra, under the direction of James Levine, proved their strengths through their playing, accompanying when necessary, but strongly independent.
All in all, it was a great performance of a genuine operatic masterpiece that deserves more performances at all levels of the operatic world.
P. S. If you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, a movie nominated for best picture, and you remember the scene where the young boy is searching for the girl he knew, but is separated from, he witnesses briefly the performance of an opera in the ruins of a temple. That opera was the French version for tenor of Gluck's opera, and it contains a salient clue to the movie's meaning, namely another retelling of the Orpheus/Euridyce story and the rigors he must pass through to regain her.
Burlington resident Dan Wolfe observes and critiques the local arts scene for the Times Sentinel. His column appears weekly.