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On Sunday afternoon, March 5, conductor Rodney Wynkoop joined the cream of two of the ensembles he leads for a performance the likes of which has rarely been heard in these parts. It was a fascinating blend of romance – Gypsy music, as interpreted by German composer Johannes Brahms, and Russian music, filtered through the remarkable inventive creativity of Soviet expatriate Igor Stravinsky.
First, the artists: The chamber choirs of the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale are chosen by audition from the larger groups and, combined, form an elite group of about forty singers. Their singing reflects their skill and dedication and all the extra work they do beyond the requirements of the parent choirs they represent. For Brahms' Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op. 103, they were accompanied with panache and verve by pianist Glenn Mehrbach. For Stravinsky's Les Noces (Svadebka, in Russian, meaning The Wedding), the choral ensemble was joined by four pianists (David Heid, Frank Pittman, Elizabeth Tomlin, and Mehrbach), six percussionists (Kenneth Whitlow, Richard Motylinski, Eric Corwin, Steve Burke, Nathan Daughtrey, and John Hanks), and by soprano Elizabeth Linnartz, mezzo-soprano Ellen Williams, tenor Wade Henderson, and bass D. Thomas Jaynes. The ensemble delivered a rich performance of what must surely be one of the more challenging and daunting scores in Stravinsky's oeuvre.
Now for the music.... The program opened with Brahms' Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op. 103. Brahms' interest in the passionate and intense music of the gypsy idiom found its way into many of his works, especially in the present work and the Hungarian Dances, a set of 21 piano duets published in four books, some of which were transcribed for solo piano, and a few were transcribed for orchestra. The Gypsy Songs are mostly about the pleasurable games of flirting and love and the flipside – rejection and parting; in the singing and accompaniment, one can visualize the colors and the twirling skirts and hear the intricate sounds of energetic violins and squeeze boxes. The accompanist's fingers do a lot of flying across the keyboard, and Mehrbach handled the workout with style and class. The chorus is also called upon to do some vocal gymnastics, since much of the work fits one word (or syllable) to one note, like a patter song, with the notes coming incessantly quickly. Brahms' mastery of counterpoint adds to the excitement of many of the eleven songs. Only toward the end does he slow down briefly for some reflections on parting and love, "soft and tender like a dove." The chorus reflected Wynkoop's usual mastery of the notes and markings in the score and projected the composer's intent in the performance. Subtle rises and falls, slowing into a cadence, picking up tempo into a new phrase – with these and by other interpretive means, the choral ensemble was led through a lively and lovely performance.
After a brief intermission, Wynkoop prepared the audience with explanations, interpretations, and examples from the score of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The work was conceived in 1914 and, after several attempts to find the right sound for his rhythmic ideas, it was premiered in its present form in 1923. The piece employs ritualistic elements of a Russian village wedding and consists of four tableaux that follow one another without pause. Scene I deals with the bride getting her hair braided and bemoaning the loss of many things. Scene II tells of the bridegroom's preparations. In only one brief moment does the accompaniment pause, as the bridegroom kneels before his parents, asking their blessing. In Scene III, the wedding party departs for the feast, leaving the two mothers behind to lament the loss of their dear children. Scene IV depicts the wedding feast where copious beer and spirits are served. Throughout, symbolic and ritualistic traditions are related – acted out, as it were, in the music and text. The music is relentlessly rhythmic; mostly simple three note melodies are sung over driving ostinatos of repeated sequential note patterns in the accompanying pianos and percussion instruments. One gets a sense of whirling action, of many things happening at the same time. The performance was sung in an English translation prepared by Wynkoop and printed in full in the program. It was virtually impossible to follow, though Wynkoop's instructions before the performance were very helpful in spotting some landmarks as the "events" of the wedding took place. At the end, the sound of wedding bells emerge from the gaiety and confusion as the bridegroom sings of his joy that he and his love are now alone together.
Writing this review, I find Stravinsky's striking and original sonorities still driving in my head. And even though Stravinsky's reaction to the emotional heaviness of the romantic era was to seek a mechanical and emotionless idiom, the bridegroom's song, with the wedding bells at the conclusion, was touching and satisfying.
It must have taken a tremendous amount of technical and emotional energy to put this stunning performance together. Having heard a couple of other performances (recordings only), I would say I wish there had been a way to subdue the piano and percussion a bit so that the charm of some of the vocal work might have come through a little more clearly. Nevertheless, all of the outstanding musicians deserve a hearty vote of gratitude for providing the opportunity to hear such an amazingly inventive work in live performance.