Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Souvenir of the Ancient World

Last night's Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert began with Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess, featuring one of the most beautiful and haunting horn solos ever written, and ended with a small chamber music work, Beethoven's "Ghost" trio, op. 70, no. 1, for violin, cello, and piano. The ghostly theme was sustained in the middle of the concert with a new commissioned piece by Minnesota-born jazz composer Maria Schneider based on poems by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, including a setting of his poem "The Dead in Frock Coats." The soprano was Dawn Upshaw.

Maria Schneider recently won a Grammy award for best jazz instrumental composition. Her music was interesting and accessible, and I found one of her Drummond de Andrade settings, "Souvenir of the Ancient World," especially lovely.

According to poet and translator Mark Strand, Drummond's poems "are, for the most part, bittersweet evocations of a small-town childhood or, more emblematically, remorseful accounts of a lost world." The poems, Strand writes, "concern themselves with the ubiquity of loss." In 2006, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of 9/11, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky chose "Souvenir of the Ancient World" as the poem that best helped him make sense of those disasters. Pinsky wrote: "The time before a disaster can come to feel like a lost innocence. Losing the unconscious assumption of safety is a minor, persisting echo of the greater, actual loss." Drummond's poem, quite beautifully and sensitively, evokes the everyday anxieties ("missing the eleven o'clock trolley") that are dwarfed by real disaster. Maria Schneider's music perfectly accented the poem's lovely balance of brightness and wistfulness. And, of course, Dawn Upshaw's singing was as beautiful as can be.

The first half of the SPCO program was rounded out by Maurice Delage's exotic Four Hindu Poems and twelve-tone composer Anton Webern's odd dissection of the Ricercare from Bach's The Musical Offering.

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