Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Out in the Cold

A YOUNG MAN, spurned by his beloved, sets off on foot across a chilly winter landscape, exploring a range of volatile emotions as he surveys the countryside. Dogs bark at him as he halts by them; a cemetery casts an inviting spell. These are elements of Wilhelm Müller’s “Die Winterreise,” a cycle of poems set to music by Franz Schubert in 1828.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Tenor Ian Bostridge, a frequent “Winterreise” performer, combined personal impressions of the work with an insightful historical and philosophical overview in his book Schubert’s Winter Journey, wherein he notes that it’s “Odd ... perhaps, that we always give the cycle in a warm hall, that we never feel the cold or live in the silence of the snowy landscape. How often do the audience really imagine it? Should it be part of the recipe?”

We got the answers on Saturday, Feb. 11, when baritone Christopher Herbert gave a brilliant performance of “Winterreise” in Saratoga’s Spa State Park – outdoors, in the snow, clad in duffel coat, boots, and watch cap.

This al-fresco version is re-named “Winterize,” directed by JJ Hudson, and Herbert has presented it in outdoor venues around the country, but never before in a landscape of winter snow. It’s billed as an event for baritone and radios, which are distributed among the audience to broadcast a recorded accompaniment.

About 60 bundled-up enthusiasts braved the cold to share this journey, which followed a trail overlooking Geyser Creek. Herbert divided the cycle’s 24 songs into groups of four, changing location after each such set.

Gute Nacht” is the first number, a declaration of independence sung to a walking-pace rhythm as the traveler slips out of his sweetheart’s house in the middle of the night and steals away. Müller never explains the reason for the rift, nor offers much in the way of characterization. We don’t know why our protagonist is staying in this house, although Bostridge offers the suggestion that he’s a tutor, an arrangement familiar to the 19th-century artist, and one that gave rise to all sorts of mischief.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This is also the song that establishes our confidence in the singer, and it was clear from the start that Herbert is a master of this material. Singing to a group standing a few feet away is different from performing in a concert hall, and Herbert modulated his voice accordingly, giving a feeling of intimacy in this most-open space.

Pianist Timothy Long recorded the accompaniment, and it’s his piano you hear in the first few numbers, the spatial identity somewhat confounded because of the many radios from which the sound emerges. But soon the instrumentation begins to change. Working from a MIDI file of Long’s playing, sound designer Jonathan Zalben crafted an orchestration, adding other instruments and textural elements, and changing the keyboard to harpsichord, organ, and celeste at appropriate moments. Atmospheric sounds such as wind and barking dogs also worked into the mix, an excellent use of the technology.

The songs are in German and can be effectively rendered in no other language. It helps to know the texts, and Opera Saratoga, which presented this free event, provided a helpful online link to ticketholders. But the performance itself was livened by the artwork of Irene Rinaldi, who works in a woodblock style (think John Held, Jr.); each drawing was accompanied by a pithy précis of the particular poem. The fourth song, “Erstarrung” (usually translated as “Numbness,” although “Frozen Stiff” is a better match) was captioned “My heart is frozen, but if it melts, so will my memory of her,” which prompted a nervous laugh from some of the audience – but these songs are heart-wrenching, a fact that’s obvious whether you know the language or not, and we’re not accustomed to internalizing such things.

Within the brooding confines of this cycle is a startling variety of material. “Erstarrung,” the last of the first set of four, maintained a busy accompaniment as Herbert shifted among several shades of yearning, from weary to angry to mournful. And then it was a short walk to a spot in sight of the geyser, and “Der Lindenbaum,” a gentle ballad that has taken on a life of its own as a folksong.

These contrasts were evident throughout the program: always in keeping with the music and text, but more demonstrative, I’m guessing, than might be the case indoors, in a concert hall.

At our final stop, Herbert brushed snow from a picnic-table seat and sang from that perch. This is where he rendered the final song, “Der Leiermann,” which ought to be a bone-chilling finish, starkly depressing in its economy of words and music. It describes a vagrant hurdy-gurdy player, ignored by passers-by as he attempts to play his rude instrument, but in this version he became an organ-grinder, characterized as crazy, as the music sounded with organ effects and whispered commentary. A creative choice, perhaps, but not an appropriate one.

Although the performance took place in a closed-to-vehicles section of the park, there were hikers and cross-country skiiers sharing the path and stopping to take in a song or two, always with quiet discretion. The overall effect, ironically, was to turn the experience more intimate than in the concert hall, returning it to something like the salon setting in which it premiered. The texts date from a time when we defined our lives much more in terms of outdoor elements; how satisfying, then, to return to them this way.

Winterize: An Outdoor Adaptation of Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” for Baritone and Radios
Christopher Herbert, baritone
Saratoga Spa State Park, Feb. 11

The Alt Online, 15 February 2017

No comments: