Eastern North Carolina is characterized by broad flat fields, flat woods of mingled pines and hardwoods, and broad flat bodies of water. The boredom of hours of hard work and the distractions of outdoor play are not relieved by much powerful art. We have our occasional Francis Speight or Hobson Pittman, but there are far, far too many really bad oils and acrylics and watercolors and line drawings of the same damn abandoned boat in the collapsing boathouse on Alligator Creek on Highway 55. There are bands with overamplification in lieu of skill that play the same 100 beach music and rock songs for drunken dancing. There are huge new houses copied from the prosaic pages of Southern Living. There are craft shows with hundreds of lumpy bowls and out-of-proportion coffee mugs and cheap pine boxes router-carved to say “Taters n Unyuns.” The North Carolina Symphony [http://ncsymphony.org] is a state-funded voice crying in the wilderness. There is a very-old-fashioned school of music in Greenville. A search of all the listings in the calendar of CVNC frequently yields nothing of interest. And just when I am in deepest despair about the arts in eastern North Carolina, there is another flash of brilliance from the Music House in Greenville.
Just such a beautiful light came from the Music House when impresario accompanist John O'Brien teamed with tenor Darren Chase to present two song cycles, Robert Schumann's Liederkreis (Opus 39, 1840) and Claude Debussy's Ariettes Oubliéees (L. 60, 1885-87).
And this was not just piano and singing: prior to each cycle, Prof. John Steen (PhD, Emory, 2012) had the very hard job of making sense of the poems in 50 words or less. He very helpfully pulled the poems together. After Dr. Steen, the poems were declaimed in the original and then in English. Gerda Nischan read the German of Joseph von Eichendorf; Francoise Papalas read the French of Paul Verlaine; Roberta Bonnet read the English. Nischah, Papalas, and Bonnet were excellent, each in her own way demonstrating the regional sounds and accents distinctive to educated people speaking their native tongue.
The meat of the program was nevertheless the singing and playing of Chase and O'Brien. Hearing a poem read almost as fast as one can follow is not the same as the same drawn out through composition and singing. The remarkable insight that Schumann added and Chase built upon makes clear once again that, for all that is written about music, it is the hearing of it that makes it transcendent. The poems only came alive to me when I heard them sung. Chase favors a melodic style, even when singing loudly, not the faux-operatic yelling so typical of much eastern NC.
Chase has a young but polished and mature voice, a very masculine tenor, with complete control through his whole dynamic range. By turns his singing is delicate, powerful, intimate, commanding. His beautifully coached German was a perfect match for the upright Romantic-era poetry of von Eichendorf, the only one of the four creators of this evening's art who led a relatively normal life. (For titillations beyond what is permitted in family writing such as this, I suggest a study of the lives of Schumann, Debussy, Verlaine and his lover Rimbaud! Zut alors! Holy cow!)
I have frequently heard O'Brien play, both on his home turf and in other venues. His playing is relaxed but precise, strictly rhythmic but embodied with great feeling. Like Artemus Ward's George Washington, O'Brien never slops over. O'Brien's academic degree is in accompanying; his performance today made it clear how he came by that award.
The duo made a feast out of the Debussy/Verlaine, a composition that could easily slopped over into the realm of parody and ridicule. "L'ombre des arbres" sounded like silent movie music – a very slow version of “then the train started to coming,” but Chase and O'Brien resisted the temptation, just as they did with "C'est l'extase langoureuse," which could otherwise have become Henri-le-chat-noire.
Chase appears from his biographies to live a very full life beyond the boundaries of Pitt County; I hope he can be enticed back to the Music House and a pairing with O'Brien soon and often.