Sounds of Arcadian aspirations

"The Dream" by Rousseau is part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibit that spawned the concert.
"The Dream" by Rousseau is part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibit that spawned the concert.

Art Museum concert links exhibit to the works of Satie, Stravinsky, and others.

Posted: August 29, 2012

If a Philadelphia Museum of Art retrospective ever warranted a musical component, it's the current Visions of Arcadia. And on Sunday, it had one, courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music, in a concert titled "Wooing the Woodland Muse on a Slender Reed ."

The visual art in this popular exhibition (which closes Monday) isn't so much about a particular aesthetic as it is an idea that resonated in art for centuries. Though Arcadia is indeed a real place in Greece, it's best known as a fantasy utopia where, to judge from the paintings of Gauguin, CĂ©zanne, and Matisse on current display, clothes were optional, weather was pleasant, and, as one commentator put it, death came as a puzzling surprise. Arcadia's ease and pleasure were consistent characteristics through the ages, but what the place looked like changed radically.

Better-dressed (or more-dressed) visions of Arcadia are prevalent in 18th-century vocal music of Handel and Rameau, with results that can be cloyingly precious. Sunday's concert viewed Arcadia more through the lens of impressionism, in keeping with the limited chronology of the museum show and the confines of Van Pelt Auditorium, whose size dictates chamber-music forces. Works of Satie, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and Debussy were performed by Curtis students and graduates.

Just as the exhibition used the 17th-century Poussin painting The Andrians as a point of context for idealized Arcadia from previous eras, the concert had an 18th-century French contribution from Jean-Marie Leclair - unfortunately his rather puny Violin Sonata (Op. 9, No. 3), though it was performed by Justine Lamb-Budge with a keen awareness of proper baroque style.

Jumping forward more than a century, Satie's popular Three Gymnopedies was an obvious choice for the concert, given how much the work's distilled simplicity exemplifies an Ionic, neoclassical sensibility. The similarity of bass lines and melodies in Three Gymnopedies felt like three painterly perspectives on a central idea. Pianist Ashley Hsu's performances, though, were among the least committed I've ever heard.

At first, any Stravinsky looked like a strange choice; it's hard to imagine him having patience for anything sweetly Arcadian. However, his 1914 Three Pieces for String Quartet was included to play off the cubist refraction of Arcadian visions upstairs, exemplified by Robert Delaunay's The City of Paris. The Stravinsky piece indeed has a fractured quality, especially in a performance that seemed bent on making a connection (not always successfully) with the ultra-terse music of Gyorgy Kurtag.

Milhaud's 1914 Sonata for Two Violins and Piano, an early work rarely plucked from the acres of chamber music this composer produced, turned out to be a substantial find, full of attractive melodies that felt particularly serene in their lyricism. Arcadia represented, after all, the antithesis of conflict, another reason why the piece's use of unisons and octaves felt at home here - as did with similar qualities in Debussy's 1915 Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.

The less-hazy world of post-impressionism, a concept addressed eloquently in the exhibition, gave extra layers of context to the concert. In the show, Rousseau's famous The Dream is the post-impressionist model, its jungle visions rendered with clarity so uncompromising as to be, paradoxically, deceptive. The painting's images seem to be all on the surface, when in fact the lack of depth perception allows many underbrush creatures to hide in plain sight, an element better appreciated from seeing it in person.

So it was too with Debussy's seldom-heard Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp in the performance's post-impressionist stance. Madeline G. Blood's harp playing wasn't at all demure and dominated the sonata in the manner of a piano in more traditional instrumentations. Violist Daniel Hanul Lee and flutist Diondré McKinney weren't feeling particularly dreamy either, playing with a clarity that revealed details you felt you should have heard before but hadn't.

McKinney also played Debussy's solo flute work Syrinx (the "slender reed" of the title), written two years before the sonata, and again rejected abstraction in a strongly shaped reading that suggested he was responding to some secret lyrics, so specific was the music's poetic imagery. His tempo had a firm sense of pulse - not easy in a piece that can seem almost rhapsodically improvisatory. Take note of McKinney: We're likely to hear a lot from him in the future.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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