Parthenia’s members – Beverly Au, treble and bass viols; Lawrence Lipnik, tenor viol; Rosamund Morley, treble and bass viols; and Lisa Terry, bass viol – have been playing together for a long time. They are alert to each other’s pacing, phrasing, intentions and purposes; they function as an easy organic whole. Parthenia has collaborated with harpist Patton in the past; the five musicians work well together. The Baroque repertoire they share depends for its success on intimately close attention to their instruments’ sounds’ interconnections, and on their ability to shape those interconnections into a lived and living experience. Parthenia’s playing is luminously clear; its meticulous accuracy, far from being its highest goal, is the assumed means by which nuanced emotion and complex meaning are explored and conveyed.
The first half of the program brought together works of seventeenth century composers of radically different styles, some for viol quartet alone and some for quartet with harp. Some works were particularly exquisite. Picforth’s “In Nomine” was spare to the point of serenity. The dance pieces of Carlo Farina and Nicolo Corradini were dense and lush in harmonic play, and lively, even sexy, in rhythm and whirl.
Many of these Baroque pieces in their day were as new and risky – and confident about it – as Sandresky’s new work in the second half of the program.
Parthenia’s performance of Baroque pieces is as fine as it is because of the musicians’ passionate commitment to the life and breath of the music and not to any monodic pursuit of a necessarily elusive historical accuracy. Parthenia ‘s medium is a certain kind of historical instrument; in addition to performing music of their instruments’ era, these musicians have made it part of their purpose and identity to serve as collaborative partners for contemporary composers who write for viols for both their distinctive sound and for the aesthetic allusions that sound evokes.
Eleonor Sandresky is not the first composer to be attracted to Parthenia’s affinity for collaboration with contemporary music-writers. Her new piece, “John Donne Songs Without Words,” was written for and with Parthenia and Patton, as Sandresky herself explained in her brief introduction of the piece to the March 22 audience. Sandresky builds on these musicians’ ability to make their instruments accomplish everything that Baroque composers expected them to as well as much that their seventeenth century sensibilities would never have imagined. Sandresky assumes, as well, these musicians’ wide-ranging intellectual literacy, their willing ability to stretch their performance skills and purposes, and their exceptionally good-willed, down-to-earth lack of pretense.
Sandresky describes herself as a “composer and choreographic pianist” who seeks to “facilitate a reconnection between our physical bodies with our physical sound world” by writing pieces that “incorporate physical, choreographed movement into the fabric of her compositions” (www.esandresky.com).
Sandresky worked with Parthenia and Patton for two years on the composition of this new piece. As Sandresky discovered, composer and musicians alike have a long standing affection for the poetry of metaphysical poet John Donne. Each musician chose a particular Donne poem and read it out loud, recording it; Sandresky then “extracted” the pitch, rhythm and breath patterns of each musician’s reading and incorporated these elements into her creation of her six-movement piece. As it turned out, the poems all together – “The Break of Day,” “The Sun Rising,” “The Computation,” “The Broken Heart,” and “The Triple Fool” – added up to a “sad story of love,” love hoped for, yearned after, once gained then finally lost or outlived.
Sandresky’s “choreography” in the piece consisted of the musicians’ exaggerated movements, some slowed to stillness and briefly maintained tableaux vivants, between actual music playing; individual pages of scores flung off music stands; extended bow arms reached towards the ceiling, chair slumps, occasional foot stomps and collective breath sounds between movements. Directions for players written in the score include admonitions like “From Slump, Rise to Play” and “Big Arms to Play.” Occasionally, the musicians looked at each other with mock exasperation or astonishment, setting their faces in the vocabulary of nineteenth century dancers’ pantomime.
Sandresky’s intended purpose – the incorporation of physical identity, movement and organic sound into the experience of the music for both performers and audience – was achieved, but it was, in fact, at odds with the musical quality and integrity of the piece. Sandresky’s music, in and of itself, was complex and rewarding. Donne’s discernible influence and inspiration lay in the harmonic and rhythmic intricacies of her writing: familiar Renaissance and early modern chords and melodic relationships were juggled and juxtaposed so as to elicit modern variations of traditional wit, wistfulness and wisdom. Sandresky’s music required Parthenia and Patton’s deft technical expertise as they played their instruments in both old and new ways; it also required very tight control of both individual instruments’ and ensemble performances.
Sections of the piece were melodically pleasing; others were strident and unnerving. Recurring themes, evocative of Baroque ancestries, were interwoven and then left dangling as though in imitation of feelings of love and loss, each discovered, experienced, forgotten, remembered, replicated and then lost again. Sometimes the music functioned as a recognizable quartet or quintet – Baroque or nineteenth century or even contemporary – and then devolved into instruments struggling for individual identity or discrete conversations, before recovering familiar forms again or, as at the end, drifting into an eerily unhinged psychological silence. The music of the piece was interesting, intelligent and at times quite wonderful. It was also, in large part, strong enough to stand without the “choreography” which, as the work ages, might prove unnecessary and dispensable.
The failure of the choreography exists at two levels. First, the music of this piece, like the Baroque music of the first half of the program, carries its own discernible physicality: listeners get to match what they hear to their pulse, and they can imagine themselves dancing. Neither the performers nor the listeners need the “choreography” to deeply feel and truly apprehend the music.
Second, much of the choreography has the effect of broad comedy … and Donne is completely not comic. He is witty; he is cerebrally satisfying. Another kind of poet, someone bawdier or more heartily absurdist, might have elicited Sandresky’s particular choreography, but not Donne.
In spite of this shortcoming, Sandresky’s piece drew happy applause as had the works of the first halfo the program. The small audience consisted primarily of Parthenia friends and colleagues, people who value Parthenia’s artistery, excellence, wit and risk-taking. The concrete Picture Ray Studio (where Parthenia performed once before, in 2008) provided an oddly but appropriately intimate setting for the instruments, the music, the friendships and the collegiality of listening; the Studio acoustics – with the cyclorama functioning like an upside-down medieval arched ceiling – made the viols and harp sound especially luminous, clear and rich.
It was a lovely afternoon, an affirmation of the verve, vitality and artistic generosity of these remarkable musicians.
Parthenia Viol Consort: Harp and Viols – Early Works, Plus a World Premiere by Eleanor Sandresky (March 22, 2015)
Picture Ray Studio, 245 West 18th Street, in Manhattan
For more information: visit http://www.parthenia.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission