Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Hugo Weisgall's End of Summer

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You know what's rare?  Someone known in our time as an opera composer.  There have been a couple Americans who've managed, like Gian Carlo Menotti and Daron Hagen, but overall the lifespan of the standard new opera is a handful of contractual performances and a line on a few resumes.  This is why Hugo Weisgall is a man of noteworthiness, penning multiple operas that have gained acceptance into the second-tier American opera rep - especially considering his music is atonal.  Think about it - opera fans liking atonal music that isn't by Schoenberg or Berg.  It's a tad unthinkable, but Weisgall's operas The Tenor and The Stronger are still revived, with other shows of his like Six Characters in Search of an Author still snagging rave reviews in spite of usual seat-filler-killers like dense harmonic experimentation and dramatic unease.  Adding to this noteworthiness is that Weisgall's other works are usually excellent and worth reviewing - some time ago I talked about his Opus 1 song cycle on poems by Adelaide Crapsey, and while that was as tonal as his music ever got it still showed a creative and earnest voice refining poetic expression with great promise.  A new recording of his rich and exciting Sonata for Piano, sharing disc space with Hindemith's underheard Ludus Tonalis, was released just this year, and perhaps it'll nudge a few more of his works back into the contemporary music limelight.  Today's work is also rich and exciting, and is part of a very small, but vital, collection of works about the last days of t-shirt season - End of Summer, a song set for voice, oboe and string trio, an instrumental combination I've enjoyed (with or without voice) for years now.

End of Summer sets two poems by Po Chii-i (translated by Weisgall himself) and one by a certain George Boas (who may or may not have been a Christian writer - the ones listed certainly didn't write poetry), breaking the songs up with a pair of interludes - and I must say, you gotta love any art song set that begins on eating lunch.  The two Po Chii-i poems are part of the rich heritage of old Chinese poetry that 20th-century songwriters love to set, though Weisgall wisely avoids aping any Chinese music per se as to avoid cross-cultural embarrassment.  Throughout the set, and most of his work, he explores an individual, highly contrapuntal language of atonality, spun with easy expertness and never trying to shock the audience.  "After Lunch", the opener, displays this with a kind of sardonic humor that old Chinese poetry seems oddly good at, with the tempo marked "Aloof, and quite without expression".  The lyrics, an amusing mixture of boredom and upper-crust display, are well-matched by a sub-sprightly waltz time, lack of overt drama and slippery glissandi.  This is followed by a full-bodied interlude for solo oboe, quite espressivo and as sad as a loon who lost the mating game.  Despite it being as long as the first song the "Quasi Fantasia" fits on one page, so I'm glad to reprint it here as an illustration of Weisgall's melodic invention at work:

The second song, "Hearing Someone Sing a Poem by Yuan Chen", is prime-cut tragedy, as icy and constrained as a frozen river.  The tempo is almost unconscionably slow (63-69 to the sixteenth note!), and this sense of static horror is a perfect way to set the deep sorrow that artists feel knowing that their mentors and colleagues have passed on, never again to create new works and initiating the inevitable decline of what they made in life.  This is followed by a fitful, nervous "Scherzo", punctuating dovetailing counterpoint with sinister unisons:

"De Senectute" closes the set with great austerity and weight, blanketing the listener like humid haze.  Much like "Someone..." the tempo is awkwardly slow, forcing the musicians to think and move through a curtain of molasses.  This song in particular shows off tenor Charles Bressler's great command of pitch and assured, mature tone, doubly impressive in a song this exposed and risky.  I have to applaud Weisgall for being able to extend the dramatic tension and almost crippling sense of yearning throughout such a long song, as things could have easily descended into monotony in the hands of a lesser composer.  A lesser composer would also have had trouble pulling off a closing minute like this one, with each chord following a natural progression through atonality and proving their value and finality at the softest of dynamics, reminding me in particular of Carl Ruggles's Angels.

End of Summer, along with Weisgall's other large chamber song cycle Fancies and Inventions, was recorded in the 1970's; this recording hasn't been officially re-released except as an archival on-demand deelio, which is what you're hearing now.  In lieu of that we could encourage more performances, the only hitch being that the sheet music publisher, Theodore Presser, decided to sell the score without parts - the instrumental parts are rental only, something that is guaranteed to keep 90% of prospective performers from taking the plunge.  I guess it'll have to come down to some creative MS Paint-ing to extract parts from the full score, though you didn't hear it from me...

Till tomorrow,


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