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Sing Me a Story
Frankly Music's "Words and Music" blends Whitman, Schubert, Agee, Rorem.

Kelly Markgraf

“Words and Music” is a rather open-ended theme for a concert. But you can be assured of thoughtful programming at any Frankly Music event, and Monday’s concert at the Wisconsin Conservatory didn’t disappoint.

First the words: Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” a James Agee poem, a Goethe tale of the supernatural, excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Civil War Diaries and Richard Dehmel’s fin de siècle poem that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Is it coincidence that almost all the texts here juxtapose the peaceful beauty of nature with roiling and dramatic human emotions? Dehmel’s night is transfigured because an act of love shifts the scene from a “bare cold grove” to a “lofty, bright night.” Whitman records the war carnage of a camp that lies beneath “placid stars.” And in “Dover Beach,” images of a calm sea and fair moon give way to the image of “ignorant armies” clashing “by night.”

With those dramatic contrasts, it’s not surprising that the accompanying music is charged and exciting, particularly in the hands of the likes of Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem and Schoenberg. And baritone Kelly Markgraf has a voice built for drama.

He started with Schubert’s Erlkonig, the well known song based on a dark, fairy tale of a poem by Goethe. It’s fast, furious and unrelenting, and it spun from Markgraf’s powerful voice and Jeannie Yu’s piano accompaniment like a horse galloping to its doom.  There were more opportunities for nuance and suppleness in Barber’s setting of “Dover Beach,” which sets Arnold’s poem for voice and string quartet. Undulations in the violins set the oceanside, moonlit scene, and Markgraf’s tone matched the shifting moods of the speaker’s monolog—the repose of the seashore (ending in a whispered stillness) gives way to a stentorian nobility when the words invoke Sophocles’ thoughts of “the ebb and flow of human misery.”

Ned Rorem’s “War Scenes” were written in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, and Rorem uses excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Civil War diary to highlight the ghastly absurdity of all wars. Fittingly, the style is more declamatory than lyrical. Long phrases of unaccompanied voice are punctuated by dense piano clusters or jittery 12-tone arpeggios (Yu was a masterful accompanist). In the darkly ironic “Inauguration Ball,” images of political pomp are juxtaposed with those of the dying and the dead—the music capturing it all in a fractured, ironic dance beat.

Frank Almond, the mind and energy behind Frankly Music, wouldn’t have Barber on the program without the chance to claim some of the melodies for himself. Almond played three Barber songs (transcribed for violin by Richard Walters), including the luminous setting of James Agee’s “Sure on this shining night.” Just as great jazz balladeers keep a song’s lyrics in mind as they play it, Almond seemed to speak the words of the poem with his phrasing and dynamics—“High summer holds the earth./Hearts all whole.”

The second part of the concert was devoted to Schoenberg’s string sextet, “Transfigured Night.” As usual, Almond assembles players from around the country, including Margot Schwartz and Wei-Ting Kuo from the Milwaukee Symphony, Nicholas Cords from the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Chicago’s Stephen Balderston, and New Yorker Julian Schwarz. And as usual, they play with a cohesiveness that is surprising and admirable for a “pick up” ensemble.

Described by Almond (in his always engaging introduction to the music) as a work of post-romanticism, the piece as played seems exactly that—a deeply felt tone poem that uses every style at the composer’s disposal to create its effects. There are deeply romantic passages, reminiscent of Brahms (those vigorous cello ostinatos!), experimental sonorities and atmospherics, and ethereal arpeggios that could easily be drawn from Debussy’s vocabulary. And there are even a few touches of filigreed romanticism, embellishment that wouldn’t be out of place in Chopin or Paganini. In this stellar performance, however, the most important quality is that it all came together to paint a lush, dramatic and satisfying sonic picture.

The program repeats tonight at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music at 7 pm.

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