Vocal Music Review



A Musical Evening with the Country Gentry

November 8, 2002 - Durham, NC:


Duke's Nelson Music Room was transformed into a early nineteenth century English country drawing room, replete with period instruments (from Duke's Eddy Collection) and costumes (from the local costume shop). The occasion was a soirée featuring music collected and performed by Jane Austen and her family. The performers - all of whom remained on stage as if in a parlor - perfectly captured Austen's spirited and not always gentle satire of her social class. They transformed a program of nth-rate ditties into a fully enjoyable and frequently hilarious happening. To introduce each set of musical numbers, Duke senior Sharmine Pochkhanawala read and acted some of Austen's passages relating to music. Since the read selections were primarily from the Emma , they reflected more the persona of the novel's bitchy little heroine than that of the novelist herself.

In the opening number, "For Tenderness Form'd," a duet by Giovanni Paisiello sung by soprano Penelope Jensen and baritone Wayne Lail, pianist Jane Hawkins matched the literary tone with musical irony in her accompaniment. Impersonating an amateur accompanist, she alternately rushed and hesitated - as if to find her place in the music - during the ritornelli between the verses.

Likewise, Jensen and Lail obviously made an effort to stylize their singing to the period and the social context. This doesn't mean that they didn't sing well, but rather that they, as professionals, had to act as amateurs. As a result, Jensen's interpretations of some pretty vile poetry to go with some equally cloying music were as sententious and coy as Lail's were pompous. This was not great music, and they didn't sing it as such.

Fortepianists Brenda Hollis and Randy Love joined Hawkins, Rebecca Troxler on transverse flute and cellist Brenda Neece (curator of the Eddy collection) to accompany Jensen and Lail in this primarily vocal concert. There were only four purely instrumental works on the program, two transcription of Scottish folksongs, a cello transcription of "She Rose and Let Me In," and another for flute of the song, "Oh, waly, waly." Ignace Pleyel's Sonata No. 1 in C major for flute and fortepiano was played straight and very well by Love and Troxler. The finale to the first half of the program, "The Battle of Prague," was a horse of quite another color.

Many composers have tried their hand at portraying battles in music, probably the best being Prokofiev's "Battle on the Ice" from the film and cantata Alexander Nevsky . During the period of time covered by this concert, Beethoven wrote Wellington's Victory , a work that got hauled out and dusted off to demonstrate the power of stereophonic sound in the 50s only to be subsequently dropped and forgotten. "The Battle of Prague" by Frantisek Kotzwara (Who?), scored for any instruments at hand was performed here with piano, cello, flute and narrator, who calls out the stages of the battle ("Cannons!", "Trumpets!", "Bullets flying!" "The cries of the wounded!") while the music changes to reflect each call. The piece is technically pretty difficult, especially for the pianist, and isn't made any easier by the musicians having to struggle to keep from cracking up. Kotzwara (or Koczwara) (c.1750-1791) had quite a checkered reputation. He was adept at imitating other composers and sold forged works of popular continental composers such as Haydn. His death, however, belongs up there in the annals of unusual composers' deaths along with Lully's (gangrene from mashing his own toe while conducting) and Alkan's (buried under his bookshelves holding the Talmud): Kotzwara died of hanging in a London brothel while experimenting in enhancing sexual pleasure through oxygen deprivation. His accomplice in this dubious pleasure was tried for murder at the Old Bailey and acquitted. In keeping with the presence of ladies, the program notes were less explicit.

As we mentioned, most of the selections were for voice, and composers ranged from Handel and Haydn - not at their best - to a gaggle of unknowns. Among the bunch were the compulsive gambler Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire ("I Have a Silent Sorrow"), and Stephen Storace, most of whose music was consumed in a theater fire. One of his surviving works, "Captivity," is a mournful little number portraying Marie Antoinette as she awaited her appointment with the guillotine. Samuel Webb was represented by "The Mansion of Peace," reputed to be George Washington's favorite song but with a text so convoluted that we still have no idea what it means.

The programmers spared no occasion for irony, including two numbers for Jensen, "Chastity Thou Cherub Bright" from Handel's Susanna and the anonymous "Jockey," whose refrain is "And a bonny young lad is my jockey," preceded by such lines as "He cri'd, Oh my dear! Will you never comply?/If you mean to destroy me, why, do it. I'll die."

This concert was wonderfully conceived and executed. The authentic instruments and period costumes were the least of it. The choice of works and the musicians' adaptation of their art to conform to the spirit of the novelist they were honoring was exemplary. We have never in our lives so thoroughly enjoyed a concert of mostly awful music. Yet, we cringe at the thought of enduring evening after evening of such stuff in a drafty old manor house in the middle of nowhere.

And to think, while Austen turned her genius to bringing to life the foibles of the rural gentry, a world away was the Vienna of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert!