Review: The Virtuous Woman with The Watermelon
Forest Collective teamed up with their ensemble in residence Rubiks to provide a folk-inflected final concert of 2015.
Michael Bakrnčev’s The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon is a lighthearted piece for narrator and small ensemble based on a Macedonian folk tale. Commissioned expressly for this concert, the piece was an appropriate companion to Berio’s Folk Songs. The narrator (Stefanie Dingnis) tells the story of the ideal married couple receiving visitors, but all is not as it seems. The fussy husband constantly sends his wife back to the market to buy a better watermelon for their guests and the wife simply returns to the kitchen and polishes the watermelon until the husband declares that she has indeed found the very best watermelon in town. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Don’t be a demanding partner? Do make pragmatic shortcuts? “The husband and wife are a team” explained Bakrnčev after the concert, the story hinging on our guessing at the husband’s knowledge of the wife’s actions and the slow transformation of the meaning of the word “virtuous” in the story’s title. Bakrnčev accompanies the story with a mock-military march. A flute trembles stertorously over a snare drum. At one point the narrator vocalises beautifully over a cheery piano tune. Next to the Folk Songs Bakrnčev’s musical accompaniment sounded very light indeed.
There is always time for another performance of Berio’s Folk Songs. In arranging eleven folk songs from the United States and Europe (including two original compositions), Berio sought “a unity between folk music and our music.” I assume that by “our music” he means contemporary art music rather than the classical tradition more broadly. Berio surrounds the folk tunes with an atmosphere of extended techniques evoking natural environments. Thorny instrumental interjections paint a sound-world far removed from the singing tones of a modern orchestra. Does the listener really hear the spirit of ancient music brought alive to modern ears, or a fantasy of a lost world? Whether real or imagined, in 1964 Berio constructed a bridge between pre-modern tones and the overblown, underbowed techniquesof contemporary music. This bridge has since grown to a widely acknowledged superhighway between early and contemporary music. The Folk Songs may have been a striking statement in 1964, but this conduit has now passed over into ideology and is ripe for interrogation.
Today’s culturally-aware listeners are sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. Performers need to carefully balance their preconceptions of ancient and modern music. Too “folksy” a performance and the performance will slide into parody, too straight a performance and the songs will lose much of their appeal. Stefanie Dingnis chose a relatively restrained performance style, letting the beauty of the tunes speak for themselves. Dingnis came alive in the Sicilian song “A la femminisca” with its clashing, explosive opening that cannot be mistaken for anything but an invitation to let loose. The ensemble, conducted by Evan Lawson, provided plenty of colour in their masterfully balanced accompaniment. The sensitive articulation of harpist Samantha Ramirez and thrilling execution of the piece’s signature viola solo by Anthony Chataway deserve special mention.
Listening to and watching old recordings, I wonder whether anyone could or would want to perform the Folk Songs with the same accents and dance moves today as the Songs‘ dedicatee Cathy Berberian.
The concert also included a stunning performance by Nicholas Yates of Berio’s Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone. The piece’s drone was provided by string players spaced around the Richmond Uniting Church. So subtle was their movement and quiet was their playing that I became conscious of the ethereal sound over a minute or so. What a beautiful effect. Yates’ agile execution of the popping, pointillist piece was something to behold! The concert concluded with Morton Feldman’sWhy Patterns? performed by Rubiks Collective. Jacob Abela (piano), Tamara Kohler (flute), and Kaylie Melville (percussion) move through their sparse parts at their own rate, coming together at certainvertiginous moments. These meeting-points become moments of great focus as the performers become aware that they are a page or so away from each other. The performers have to make so many decisions in executing their part that I was put in mind of Alistair Noble’s recent lecture on Feldman at the Melbourne Music Analysis Summer School. Noble argued that, given the tight-knit community within which Feldman’s works were composed and performed, he assumed a certain stylistic palette when composing indeterminate elements in his works. For the most part we cannot hope to—and may not want to—recover the assumed stylistic traits of the early performances of Feldman’s works, but there is certainly interesting work to be done in that direction.