Unembarrassed riches

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  February 21, 2008

Collage New Music, under David Hoose, completed the second of its two tributes to the late Luciano Berio with a kaleidoscopic evening that encompassed early (1958) and later (1971) works, short (the minute-and-a-half Autre fois, played twice) and longer, solos (the Sequenzas for flute and for harp), chamber, and vocal music, esoteric (Circles, Berio’s labyrinthine 1960 settings of e.e. cummings) and popular (the irresistible 1964 Folk Songs). As Hoose himself pointed out, it was hard to believe these are all works by the same composer except that they all sound “like Berio.” Christopher Krueger was the adventurous flutist, Franziska Huhn the imaginative harpist; the mezzo-soprano was Janna Baty, who doesn’t sing a note that doesn’t come to life.

The opera was Boston Conservatory’s student production of Benjamin Britten’s last, most condensed, and most haunting (it’s the only word) operatic masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, with a libretto by Welsh poet Myfanwy Piper that turns Henry James’s famous ghost story into a profound and dramatic exploration of the complex intersection of sexuality, imagination, and repression. The efficient staging by Kirsten Z. Cairns didn’t entirely solve the problem of how to depict the ghosts. It was a clever and creepy touch to show the impression of the devilish Peter Quint’s face pushing through a wall, but at other times the ghosts just walked on and stood around. Still, the second act was the most chilling and moving version of this opera I’ve seen.

Except for the astounding young tenor Stephen Chambers as Quint, the role Britten created for the astounding Peter Pears, there were two casts. My night, the other standouts were full-voiced Beth Lytwynec as Mrs. Grose, the gullible housekeeper; soprano Kristen Simchik increasingly intense as the increasingly torn governess “lost in my labyrinth”; and the phenomenal boy soprano Kyle McAdam as young Miles, whose sweet voice and violent body movements put him at the center of a fatal tug of war. The superb Karl Paulnack, leading the best student orchestra I’ve yet heard at the Boston Conservatory, sucked me into this convulsive dilemma and left me limp and shattered.

Sometimes I despair that the great popular songs of the decades between the two world wars might become irretrievably neglected and abandoned. But this week, two events reassured me that my pessimism is unfounded. The latest entry in the Cantata Singers exploration of the music of Kurt Weill, especially in relation to other composers, was a kind of cabaret at the Gardner Museum of songs — both art songs and pop tunes, arias and ensembles — by Weill and two of his quite different contemporaries, Arnold Schoenberg and his close friend and tennis partner George Gershwin. Assembled and accompanied by Alison Voth, director of the Cantata Singers Chamber Series, eight singers sang a range of numbers, favorites like “Summertime” (soprano Karyl Ryczek) and “I Got Plenty of Nothin’ ” (baritone Dana Whiteside), from Porgy and Bess, and “The Man I Love” (Ryczek) and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove), and rarely heard lieder by Schoenberg and even rarer songs by Weill, with texts by Rilke, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Hammerstein.

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