Music Feature Print



Saluting Alexander Silbiger, On the Occasion of his Retirement

March 22, 2002 - Durham, NC:


Part One

Friday, March 22, was, at Duke, a day that only musicologists could truly love, although there was also much of interest for general music lovers as well. It doesn't seem to have been declared "Alexander Silbiger Day" by the Mayor of Durham, and to our knowledge there were no celebratory proclamations from the Governor or the White House, but it was clear throughout the afternoon and evening that the Man of the Hour - many hours, as it turned out - was even more special than, heretofore, we had realized. For the record, we do know he arrived in the Triangle in 1984 after teaching at Brandeis and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and that he is a distinguished scholar, Professor, former Chair of the Music Department and, on three separate occasions, Director of Graduate Studies - in light of all of which we were pleased when he consented to serve on CVNC 's board and even more delighted when he was recently elected our Vice Chair.

The Salute to Silbiger began at 1:00 p.m. in Allan H. Bone Hall with the first of a series of presentations by colleagues and former students who have grown up to be distinguished scholars in their own right. The opening paper, on "Some Philological Problems..." surrounding Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda "...and a Musical Resolution" thereof, was delivered by Tim Carter, currently affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill (where he is now involved with coordinating that University's pending Stravinsky Festival). The work under discussion is reasonably well known, but it's a safe bet that few people anywhere (and, with the possible exceptions of Carter and Silbiger themselves, perhaps even few in attendance) were aware of the many ambiguities and questions surrounding the score as we know it - questions Carter raised and then answered, based on his exhaustive analysis of the available evidence.

Randall Love then provided musical respite from the rigors of complex scholarly goings-on as he played music by Clementi (two exercises) and Beethoven (two bagatelles) on a fortepiano (From Duke's recently-acquired Eddy Collection) made by... Muzio Clementi & Co., c.1805-10(!).

Next up was the first of two Silbiger students, Claire Fontijn-Harris, currently at Wellesley. Her topic, which like Carter's was surely right up her former mentor's alley, dealt with a comparison of Antonia Bembo's Ercole amante with its earlier model, by Cavalli. Her utterly charming presentation, completely devoid of pretension, facilitated her elucidation of myriad details that, in less skilled hands, could have induced sleep, as some of the music she described was intended to do. Like the other speakers, she made it a point to pay tribute to the symposium's honoree, noting specifically that Silbiger's "work here at Duke led to a Golden Age of Early Music."

Another former student, Giuseppe Gerbino, now at Columbia University, then spoke on "Opera, Pastoral, and the Impossibility of Tragedy," reminding his audience of the Renaissance roots and early evolution of what became opera as we (more or less) know it today.

University Organist Robert Parkins's musical interlude involved works by Frescobaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, performed on a handsome 1983 harpsichord made by Richard Kingston.

UC-Berkeley's Richard Taruskin reminisced about Silbiger, recalling the young harpsichord accompanist with whom he first worked 36 years ago - a keyboardist who already had a Ph.D. from Columbia (in Engineering Mechanics(!)). He then gave a stem-winder of a lecture, titled "Stravinsky and Us," in which many Stravinsky myths were resoundingly debunked. (It will be interesting to see if Carter & Co., over at UNC, incorporate some of Taruskin's findings and theories into their own seminar, for details of which we refer readers to our calendar.)

Silbiger spoke briefly, thanking the presenters and the organizers of the proceedings for their many kindnesses. The warmth of his remarks matched the obvious love that all involved with the event feel for him as a person and the great respect they hold for him as one of the leading musicologists of our time.

Part Two

The festivities continued in Duke Chapel at 8:00 p.m. as Jonathan Gibson, Director of the Duke Collegium Musicum, the University's ensemble for early music, dedicated his group's performance of "Music of Hope from Baroque Germany" to Silbiger, the Collegium's faculty coordinator. For the occasion, an all-star cast was assembled from hither and yon. The guest artists included string coach and violin soloist Elizabeth Field, sackbuttists Stewart Carter and Craig Kridel (who brought along his own serpent, heard in the concert's closing number), the ubiquitous and truly multi-talented Robbie Link, who this time played a violone, and UNC's Brent Wissick, whose bass viol was heard early in the proceedings. The other instrumentalists - there were 19, all told - appeared to include Duke students plus violinist James Dargan (from the Duke University String School), cellist and Instrumental Director Stephanie Vial, and a cornetto player with a vested interest in the overall success of the enterprise - Duke Institute of the Arts Director Kathy Silbiger. The chorus consisted of 21 singers, five of whom - sopranos Ariel Reed and Clare Woods, alto Tamsin Simmill, tenor Wade N. Henderson, and bass Henry S. Gibbons - gave solos during the evening.

The splendid printed program contained notes on the composers (most of whom are obscure to all save Silbiger and his colleagues and students) plus texts and translations of the vocal works. It cannot have been an accident that Silbiger's own translation of one piece was provided and that it was presented in his own scholarly edition. It was that kind of concert.

And the presenters rose to the occasion, giving generally magnificent readings that were, for the most part, refreshingly free of technical problems (although there were a few, relatively minor lapses in intonation and ensemble, here and there). If Silbiger was Man of the Hour, then Schütz was Composer of the Evening; two of that master's motets and two psalm settings were presented, interspersed, in turn, with a sonata by Johannes Schenck (Wissick's solo offering), a sonata for two violins (Field and Sam Breene) and continuo by Johann Rosenmüller and a larger sonata for strings by Georg Muffat, and a brief intermission that lasted longer than many people expected (as old friends caught up with Silbiger to render homage and congratulations). If Schütz's music glowed from within, the other works certainly held their own in the context of the evening, which was "Music of Hope" that stemmed from and followed what the program described as "the utter devastation of the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), outbreaks of the plague, and a relentless economic downturn." Some of this of course resonates within caring souls even today, and it is a fact that the music given, often full of hope (when not full of lamentation), retains and continues to project its message across the centuries. The program ended with two major works by comparatively minor composers-Silbiger's edition of Matthias Weckmann's "Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste," performed by vocalists Reed and Gibbons and accompanied by a small ensemble consisting of Breene, Dargan, Lee Bidgood, John Hammond, Vial and Justin Berg; and Michael Praetorious' large-scale (but comparatively brief) "Gott der Vater wohn uns bei." This provided a fascinating gloss on a composer who is surely best known for his harmonization of "Lo how a rose e'er blooming" (or, if you prefer, "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen"). In the program's last work (and also in Schütz's setting of Ps.c, "Jauchzet dem Herren"), the two choirs, separated on the Venetian model, were marvelously effective under Gibson's leadership, and in the grand finale, the band made a great deal of felicitous noise, appropriate to the piece and to the occasion.

We join the musicians and scholars in saluting Silbiger and wishing him good health and great happiness as he embarks on the journey that is retirement from teaching.

For complete details of Silbiger's extensive bibliography that will help readers understand the topics selected by the symposium's presenters - and the music performed in his honor later in the day., see http://www.duke.edu/~lexsilb/alexander_silbiger.html