Before he tried to save the Orkney Islands from mining destruction, became "Master of the Queen's Musick" and infamous for a nasty break up with his partner, Peter Maxwell Davies was a true bad boy and maverick. Nothing demonstrated that reputation better than the "Eight Songs for a Mad King", for baritone and six instruments. Eight Songs is one of those pieces more talked about than performed due to the daunting task of finding a singer that can (or is willing) to sing/perform the insane (pun intended) role of the Mad King George III. Lucky for us the newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble felt up to the task and found a singer willing to learn the part.
Saturday April 25th concert featured the Eight Songs paired with a sampling of works by contemporary English Composers. "A Purcell Garland" a collaborative effort of Colin Matthews, George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen on three Fantasias by Henry Purcell and Johnathan Harvey's Sting Trio opened the program.
The three Fantasias that compose "A Purcell Garland" are a look back at England's first great composer through Contemporary eyes and techniques. In the more modern voice, the bass instruments (piano and cello) have a melodic component that would not be assigned to them in Purcell's time, thus deepening the texture and emphasizing the inherent drama and pathos of these short pieces. Even using modern instruments (Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Piano/Celeste), the harmonic language and spare use of vibrato recalls the sounds of a 17th century ensemble.
Matthew's arrangement of "Fantasia 13" is the most expansive since the original breaks off after about 30 bars. The composed section, an agitated fantasy, references and comments on Purcell's original, before returning to the somber mood of the opening. Benjamin's "7th Fantasia" is more straightforward, more of an orchestration in contemporary sound than an arrangement. In this performance, pianist Robert Pherigo used a harpsichord rather than a celeste to good effect. Knussen's re-working of the familiar "Fantasia upon One Note" expands the theme with the constantly sounding C fading in and out of the texture. In this performance, newEar included the optional part for viola, adding depth of sound and texture to the piece. These three inventive and colorful exercises affectionately looked back to the heritage of Purcell and his importance as the foundation of English music tradition, providing an appropriate and informative opening to the program.
Johnathan Harvey (1939-2012) was a prolific composer of chamber, electronic and vocal works and an active teacher, but actually this was my introduction to his music. The "String Trio" from 2004 is terse and gritty a la Ferneyhough and ultimately a most satisfyingly challenging piece. The work begins with echoes of Bartok in its rustic, folk-like sound world and drumming sounds from the cello but soon evolves into Harvey's trademark spatialism as the three instruments, engage and disengage in a short motives and long, linear passages evolving eventually to a wild, skittish dance. Slower and more contemplative sections introduce a spiritual aspect, inspired by his liturgical drama based the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This spiritual and pastoral aspect provides a foundation to experience the work as a long melodic whole and not just a series of disconnected sounds and episodes. Not easy listening, frequent quiet passages in harmonics and delicate pizzicato requires concentration and possibly several "listens" (thankfully a fine performance is available on CD with Harvey's 4 String Quartets with the incomparable Arditti String Quartet) to reveal the argument of this intense essay. Sunho Kim, Violin, Nell French, Viola, and Larry Figg, Cello were technically brilliant, especially in the exposed, threadbare passages of harmonics and extreme pianissimo. The tight ensemble reveled in the innate lyricism of the work as well. As fine a performance of this thorny work as one could imagine, well done.
The "Eight Songs for a Mad King" (1969) put the then 35 year-old Peter Maxwell Davies on the map. Written for "The Pierrot Players" (a group he founded) and actor Roy Hart who was known for his immense vocal range and ability, "Eight Songs" pushes the performers to extremities of technique and emotion. Maxwell Davies’ librettist, Randolph Stow, created eight monologues that King George III, slowly descending into complete madness, shouts, sings, screams, whispers and growls to his beloved caged birds. The instruments (violin, cello, flute (d. piccolo), clarinet, piano (d. harpsichord) and percussion) representing his caged birds, often engage in solo dialog with the variously lucid King. Bass-Baritone Kenn Kumpf, singer, teacher and composer from Chicago, portrayed King George.
"Eight Songs" is as intense to experience as it must be to prepare and perform. The King not only sings to his birds (the first performance famously had each of the instruments in bird cages) but frequently addresses the audience as if they were members of the Court witnessing the sad, demented King's rants. Due to space limitations, there was no attempt at "staging" with this performance, but the intimacy of the space brought the King directly into our presence. While the King may be mad, and the vocal part more of a set of instructions rather than a musical score, the work is quite a logically laid out musical structure. Each of the songs is based on one of the eight tunes from a music box once owned by the King, interwoven with references to not only Handel but to musical forms and characteristics of King George's era.
Rarely performed, (newEar's Andrew Granade said they wanted to perform it because not only was it a Kansas City premiere but also because "it was fun"), this performance was spectacular in about every way. The instrumental balance was excellent, never overwhelming the singer yet always present and technically without fault. Kumpf was simply brilliant with his panoply of vocal sounds in every possible octave while maintaining quite understandable diction, essential for the audience to pick up on the irony and even wit of the libretto. In the climactic 7th song where the King grabs, strums and ultimately smashes her violin, Sunho Kim spent the rest of the piece in pitiful sulking, adding a touch of amusement to the otherwise tense piece. For the eighth song, "The Review, a Spanish March", the bass drum marched the now fully mad King off the stage and out the door as he "died howling.... howling..howling...." Totally brilliant.
The program notes were informative and intelligent with the full text of "Eight Songs" provided.
Mad Kings and Englishmen was easily one of the best performed and intelligently programmed concerts in recent newEar memory; a complete musical experience from nostalgically elegant court dances all the way to insane in-your-face theatre.