Monday, April 11, 2011

Serenade at Full Strength

My orchestra performed its spring concert over the weekend, Spring Serenades, in fact. There was no wind section this time around, so I was free to sit in the audience and listen. Boy, am I glad I did. Conductor Eric created a thoughtful program that he described as a variety show of sorts, and it went this way:

The strings began with a Mozart serenade in four parts—at some point, Small Town's county will learn not to applaud between movements, or not. It was familiar and light and very pleasant. Then a vocal soloist, Robert Frankenberry, took the stage to perform Schubert's "Standchen" accompanied by my good friend Sherri. That woman can play the piano like nobody around, and by that I mean she is very talented, not that we have a shortage of good pianists. The solo was sung in German, and I understood not a word and still thought it was lovely. During the intermission when the hall lights went up, my friends and I noticed the lyrics were provided in English right in the program, and after reading them through, we swooned and wished we had seen them before the performance. Absolutely dreamy, I'm telling you.

The solo was followed by Elgar's "Serenade for Strings," which was stirring and sweet and powerful all at once. Who doesn't love Elgar? The second half opened with a string quintet, Boccherini's "La Musica Notturna di Madrid." I bothered to mention that the Mozart opener was familiar to draw attention to the fact the quintet was completely new to me. When you listen to music you've heard many times, it's easy to sit back and occasionally let your mind wander. I was going to co-host a reception after the concert, and I found myself wondering if I had remembered to pack the parsley and if I had made too much dill dip for the veggie tray. Then I would snap back on the tracks and listen to Mozart and then back to the party—back and forth like a train without an engineer. But when you listen to unfamiliar music, particularly a piece performed with skill, you can't let yourself mentally meander. You don't want to. You practically sit on the edge of your seat and listen and wait for what's next because you have no idea. The Boccherini piece is full of surprises for the first-time listener, and with each turn of the music, I found myself delighted with the surprise and thinking, "how cool is that?" Not a very astute response in musical terms but visceral at least.

And then came the music I was really waiting for, Benjamin Britten's "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings." I could tell you all about the suite of songs, but if you're really interested, you can look it up. The point here is to say that my dear friend and horn mentor, Steve Stroup, played the horn, and because I knew he had been studying the music for months, I was eager to see what he was going to do with all of that hard work. He did brilliant things—hitting high Cs without hesitation and landing on low notes with apparent ease. He was subtle in the subtle passages and powerful in the passages he described as "here come the men and the boys." He performed the epilogue off stage as the only sound heard in the hall, and the house lights were down, and we all sat still practically holding our breath, and as his final note trailed off into the rafters, we exhaled in a way that felt like unison.

Rob Frankenberry, of course, sang the vocals and was as masterful. For a good bit of his role, he stood near the edge of the stage, and because I sat center and just a few rows back, I had a clear view of him, and I noticed something about how a talented and experienced vocalist performs—his whole body becomes the instrument, and he uses it to its fullest extent. Not only does he breath in a way that allows him to project, but he adjusts his stance as the music requires. I really can't say if that was intentional, but in the sweeter moments, he might stand heels together, and the muscles in his face appear as if he were singing love songs to his dearest one. But in the portions that demanded real power and force, he stood with feet shoulder-width apart, firmly planted on the stage as he belted out his fiercest words—"To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last, and Christe receive thy saule." And in that mighty posture, the man's facial expression turns from one of sweet intimacy to one full of dire warning, or threat more likely, with veins bulging and eyes open wide. If you listen to nothing else in this group of poems, listen to the dirge, and tell me you aren't clasping your hands to your lips and sitting wide-eyed in fear of what might come next.

So, spring serenades can be light and airy, romantic and full of hope, or gritty, heavy and frightening. I suppose that's appropriate—spring is the same way, at once breezy with dogwoods in bloom yet wild with terrorizing tornadoes, killer floods and damaging hail.


dive said...

Oh, Robyn, what a brilliant review! I hope that goes in Small Town's newspaper so that those unfortunates who missed the concert can be sure to attend the next one.
You know how I love Britten (and indeed Schubert's lieder) so please, PLEASE tell me somebody recorded Steve playing it and has kindly posted the video online.
Pretty please?

PF said...

I agree with Dive. A wonderful review, I tell ya!! (oh, and thanks for the all-too-kind words). Your description of Steve's playing and Rob adjusting his stance to match what he needed to do is just masterful, dear friend! The Boccherini was a delight to me as well, and I loved the Elgar. I liked your word "dreamy" because that is how I define Rob's singing :) And Steve was just "spot on", as they say...positively excellent!

Eric said...

All so well-said, Robyn.

Alas, Dive, we aren't recording performances (budgetary restrictions) and the Britten wouldn't be permitted online anyway, due to licensing language.