If Debussy were alive today, would he embrace the musical world he helped create?
It's not often that I think of such unanswerable conundrums during a performance. But as Da Camera's "After Debussy" concert last week at The Menil posited — in contrast to "Debussy's Paris" at Wortham the previous week — the soundscapes of his era and those who followed in his footsteps are as disparate as a vintage Château d'Yquem and a jug o' Carlo Rossi. And that's not to categorize each musicale as a varietal, but to illustrate the immeasurable distance traveled from one to the other.
Both programs forged a Debussy retrospective paying respects to the 150th anniversary of his birth.
On stage, she's a temptress who commits to a sensual theatrical spectacle as much as a thoughtful musical show. With the Enso String Quartet, I was amid turn of the century Paris. Where was my wine?
Blasphemy, I know: I can't help recall Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the 1980s cult film during which the duo travels in a time machine phone booth to amass some of history's innovators for a high school show-and-tell. Joan of Arc in a sporting goods store, Napoleon at a water park, Beethoven tearing up synthesizers at a mall music shop. . .
What would Debussy think of Philip Glass' minimalism? Would he adopt aleatoric approaches, perchance a dash of John Cage anything-goes attitude?
Chatting about the trajectory of art and aesthetics is like dancing about architecture, right? What's fun, for those with a penchant for classical music, isn't in crafting a definitive answer. That's just impossible and impractical with no chance of arriving at a precise conclusion. What tickles my musical fancy is to ponder the possibilities.
Da Camera's series traced a slow-moving artistic odyssey from 1891 to a new trio written in 2006 by Finish composer Kaija Saariaho, the tunesmith of choice by the company's artistic and general director, Sarah Rothenberg, for a commission that honors four decades of the Rothko Chapel, set to premiere Feb. 23-24, 2013.
Rothenberg doesn't intend to teach about music or history. With a hint of cubist philosophy, she lays bare different possibilities of how to listen to and think about music for both seasoned audiences and new comers equally. I was familiar with many of the works presented at the concerts — some of which I have performed many times — but with Rothenberg's curatorial tactics, I was hearing them with virgin ears.
The series focused on Debussy's plan to complete "Six sonates pour divers instruments" of which he finished only three.
Debussy's Paris at Wortham
For the most sensual and pretty Debussy, in the company of his contemporaries Ernest Chausson and André Caplet. Da Camera's program gathered violinist Cho-Liang Lin, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, harpist Bridget Kibbey and the Enso String Quartet.
Whatever Kibbey was doing to her harp in Caplet's Conte Fantastique Masque de la Mort Rouge surfaced as darkly mischievous, the appropriate response to the macabre work. On stage, she's a temptress who commits to a sensual theatrical spectacle as much as a thoughtful musical show. With the Enso String Quartet, I felt I was in turn-of-the-century Paris. Where was my wine?
There was nothing left on the page other than blood, sweat and tears.
Debussy emerged with L'isle joyeuse at the hands of McDermott. Her light cottony touch gave flight to a whole-tone fantastical realm of pure euphoria, the kind that's speculated Debussy enjoyed while retreating to the English Channel Island of Jersey to have an affair in 1904.
Supporting Lin in Debussy's Sonata for violin and piano, McDermott continued such French bliss. Lin's tone, saturated with playful nostalgia, glistered with impressionistic attitude and transparency.
News to me: Chausson crafted an mammoth 45-minutes Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet. Yet no one in the audience was keeping time. From the opening three notes leitmotif to the lilting Sicilienne to the ominous Grave and the folkish romantic finale, there was nothing left on the page other than blood, sweat and tears.
After Debussy at The Menil
I have yet to meet a flutist who has the prowess to rock through the most avant-garde extended techniques and shift gears for something a bit more traditional. Claire Chase is truly a doyen of slap tonguing, beat boxing and doing things to the flute fin de siècle France could never have imagined. But Edgard Varèse could in 1936.
With laser-like precision, Chases's Density 21.5 reached an industrial and steely affect with surging tension that carried through from spiky fourth octave Ds to fat, honky middle Cs. Just like being engrossed in a Fernand Léger painting.
Joined by Kibbey and violist Hsin-Yun Huang, Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp didn't quite achieve its bucolic foggy grace. The challenge lies in taking a texturally fragmented work and connecting the dots in a micro and macro level. Phrases just didn't carry through, a symptom of appending nuance to individual notes in lieu of across bar lines.
In every concert, there are works audiences may not readily identify with and that's OK. But what is important is to remain open to the chance that a second listen can change once attitude. First impressions aren't always accurate.
Scored for the same combination of instruments, Toru Takemitsu's atmospheric And then I knew 'twas wind, nods strongly to Debussy. From the structure to the use of instruments to east-west fusion to quoting directly from Debussy, Takemitsu encapsulates Debussy's essence and flutters gently to another metaphysical milieu. And that's where Chase, Kibbey and Huang connected musically in wispy reverie fitting for Emily Dickenson's words.
Cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton and Rothenberg are a wicked musical pair. Wieder-Atherton, hair disheveled, wasn't confined by space nor convention, except she did keep artistic integrity in her virtuosic displays in Debussy's Sonata for cello and piano. I found myself drifting in Pascal Dusapin's Immer for solo cello from 1996. The sparse textures and ethereal colors were a hard follow for the last movement of Debussy's chamber piece.
I was prepared to swoon over Saariaho's sonata, but wasn't able to fully empathize with it. Her Je sens un deuxième coeur (I Feel a Second Heart) for viola, cello and piano of 2006 is in every way thought-provoking. Written for Carnigee Hall and pianist Emmanuel Ax to "complete" what Debussy started, it is a coloristic gem with angular driving interludes during which the buoyancy and beauty of anything French meets the madness of Shostakovich and Stravinsky.
Saariaho's approach is evidently musing and Wieder-Atherton and Rothenberg gave it all they had: Breath, energy, passion and raw guts.
A la Jerry Springer: Final thoughts . . .
In every concert, there are works with which audiences may not readily identify and that's OK. Pretending to enjoy everything on a playbill is dishonest, like asserting that everyone loves a stinky Roquefort, epoisses or munster.
But what is important is to remain open to the chance that a second listen can change once attitude. First impressions aren't always accurate.