This year, we reminded ourselves not to go to the Berkshires to sing during the first three weeks of July, so as to be able to enjoy all of the Newport Music Festival. This left slim pickin's in terms of programs, so here we are to sing Sir Edward Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius," with text by Cardinal Newman. [Cardinal Newman is not a baseball player from St. Louis, but an English Cardinal of the 19th Century--that's a cardinal of the church, not a bird.] 'Tis not oft performed, this piece, heah in the colonies, but in England, it is right up there with Handel's "Messiah" in terms of popularity. It's a very long piece (two CD's) about a dying old man, filled with doubt, remorse, fear and trembling, dreading the demons of eternal damnation, who ultimately finds glory, redemption, salvation, and eternal life. It's filled with English religious sentimentality and passion. As Andy put it when I described the piece to him, "Sounds like a real snoozer!"
We are staying at The Ramblewood Inn in Sheffield, just down the road,
where we've stayed for two summers, opting for a bit of luxury instead
of the double-decker bunk beds at The Berkshire School. Unfortunately,
Martin and June, who were warm and solicitous people, sold the inn to a
guy named Harry and his wife Holly. Harry has a quiet paranoid stare, with
a strange hostile quality that is reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in "The
Shining." We would not be surprised to find hatchet marks in the doors
and a voice screaming, "Here's Johnny!!" Worse, whereas Martin used
to charge $115/night, Harry jacked the prices up to $135 without notifying
us. Be warned.
After we arrived on Sunday, we drove to John Andrew's restaurant and had what may be the best dinner in the Berkshires. We split a salad of leeks and tomatoes with baked goat cheese, Carol had beautifully prepared line-caught wild striped bass over a bed of spinach, and I had black pepper papperdelle with a ragout of rabbit. For dessert a light lemon tart with large fresh blueberries, which Carol could not snarf down fast enough. The wine was a Muscadet for $18, which was quite good, although their wine list tends to be upscale and pricey.
Rehearsals began Monday morning. There is almost no one here I know, even after 15 years of attendance. There are so many Brits who came over to sing the piece, and a very aging chorus. When I began, I was a young Turk, out biking 40 miles a day in the mountains, and now I've become old as Gerontius. I guess I can go on singing for another twenty years in this place.
The conductor is Jane Glover, an Englishwoman who comes from the same region as Elgar, and she reveres him and the piece. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she is a very, very good conductor. But the piece seems fairly banal at first hearing, both in terms of music and text. It is never a surprise why a piece is rarely performed, and it should not be a surprise why the Brits adore a piece that is filled with obscure and controlled religious passion. Singing, "Praise! Praise!! Praise"!!!" in the hands of Elgar is not quite the same as "Freude!! Freude!!! Freude!!!!" as Brahms does it in the Requiem, nor are the Demons whom Gerontius passes on his way to Heaven any match for Verdi's "Dies Irae" when they intone: "The mind, bold and independent, the purpose free, so we are told, must not think to have the ascendant." I am not making this up. It's a snoozer, all right.
Monday afternoon, the faculty give a recital. I am always amazed at
what wonderful singers they are. One in particular, has it all this year.
Jim Dember, a baritone, has a rich low and a ringing top, beautiful diction,
can act, is tall, good looking. But here he is, spending the summer teaching
aging singers the notes. There is no justice. Jim stole the show with a
rendition of William Bolcom's "Black Max."
At Tuesday rehearsals, I try to let the piece grow on me. It's almost
impossible to resist Jane's vibrancy and enthusiasm for the piece. At times,
it's downright contagious. Her warmth and humanity shine forth, and she
really seems to be a very spiritual person who takes the meaning of the
piece quite literally and seriously.
Now, Farklempt has no problem singing the praises of Jesus. (See The Breath of Life ) But the whole metaphysical concept is based on death and the eternal life or damnation that follows. It's so contrary to my Judaic ethic. I try to adopt the intensity. There's a big and glorious sound, but to me, although there are enormous technical demands when you play the demons, I feel like I'm singing "Jerusalem" in a stone cold Episcopalian Church (even though the text is by a Catholic and Elgar was a Catholic.)
Tuesday evening, Jane gives an hour talk about her own life and career. She grew up in a home where "Ben and Peter" (Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears) would come to visit, and it was Britten who turned her on to music as a way of life. She seems to be the living legacy of Britten and Vaughan Williams and Elgar and Parry. Most of all, she is a generous and kind person, a good person, and everyone in the chorus adores her. She's also very clever and witty, very fast in repartée.
Wednesday, we went for lunch at the Putnois place in Lenox. Fran was
in fear and trembling herself at the thought of a Farklempt Review. She
need not have worried. Fran, you outdid yourself, as always. Everything
was delicious. You have to give me the recipe. I couldn't eat another thing.
She laid out a spread of edamame (already shelled!! Who shells edamame
for you?!), grape tomatoes, gouda with horseradish, sliced roasted lamb,
a wonderful salad, tomato, mozzarella and pesto on garlic bread, smoked
salmon, olives, roasted red and yellow peppers, and hard-boiled eggs.
We brought the wine, which Fran served for fear of getting an adverse wine review. Now it can be told: we bought the wine on the way up. It was a 1996 Penedes from Spain with a pretty label. Everyone agreed it was delicious. It cost $4.33. For dessert, fresh fruit, including some humungous Bing and Rainer cherries.
Wednesday night, this music is growing on me. it seems that I have been paying a penance for not learning the music beforehand, and have been going through purgatory with the Demons. Now that the notes are coming easily, now that I can look at the conductor, now that I can sing with my heart and listen with my ears, I am beginning to enjoy myself. This may turn out all right after all.
Thursday. It's been drizzling all week, but finally today I was able to get out on my bike. The long climb up the hill to the school gets worse every year. Now I really love this piece. It's such a good feeling to master a piece that you thought was unsingable and to suddenly realize what beautiful music it is. I can't say the same for the text, which is oblique, arcane, and convoluted. But then, look at the libretti of the great operas. Our lack of fluency with Italian keeps us from having to fully comprehend the banalities of Aida; the Latin protects us from the "apostolicam ecclesiam" of the Mass.
Thursday afternoon, Stephen Ledbetter, who writes the program notes
for the BSO and has sung in the BSO Chorus as well, gave a lecture on Elgar
and "The Dream of Gerontius." It was scholarly but very inviting, and only
kindled our enthusiasm for the piece even more. It brought me back to my
days at Harvard, where I took Music I with G. Wallace Woodworth ("Woody).
He gave three lectures a week for a full year, and I didn't miss one, which
is more than I can say for the rest of my courses.
The rehearsal tonight was also fine. Jane's spirituality shines brighter and brighter. Combine this with her wonderful technical skills and impeccable taste, and you have one hell of a conductor. It strikes me how many conductors I have sung with who have this combination of worldliness and spirituality, the dour John Oliver, the irascible foul-mouthed Robert Page, the gruff Margaret Hillis, the charming Raymond Harvey.
Now, you may ask, where has Carol been all this week? She has written a paper, read, visited with two friends from the seminary, seen two plays by Christopher Durang, and attended a chamber music concert. In between all this, she still finds time to pamper her primo don husband.
Friday, the weather cleared after a thunderstorm last night. We had our first rehearsal with the orchestra. The Springfield Symphony used to be roughly on a par with the RI Philharmonic, but now that Larry Rachleff has taken over in Providence, the Springfield Orchestra begins to sound a bit shabby. It sounds like an excellent college orchestra. Of course, this piece is very difficult and unfamiliar, but they are getting big bucks for this. The soloists came in. Gerontius, as well as the Guardian Angel, the Avenging Angel, and the High Priest, were all sung by Ralph Fiennes (pronounced Raygthefe Fayegherstzk), whose sensitive, brooding, mournful eyes more than compensated for the fact that he can't sing a note. But I jest. The tenor, Jon Garrison, is a classic British tenor, clear, lyric, all head tones. He is utterly wonderful. The baritone, John Cheek, is highly experienced, although, like Farklempt, getting a bit raspy as the years pass. But a great deal of humanity shines through. The mezzo, Marietta Simpson sings just like the guardian angel that you would like to shepherd you to heaven. Singing with the orchestra and soloists for the first time is like entering heaven or having sex for the first time. And you worked hard to deserve it.
Friday night, we opted not to go to Tanglewood, where Van Cliburn was playing. The weather was good, but it had rained so much all week, we feared that the mosquitos on the lawn would be too virulent. Plus, they are now charging $15 a person to sit on the lawn. That's hutzpah! What is going to happen to America if no one but the very rich can attend performances of the arts. So, instead we went to the movies to see "The Croupier," a Mike Hedges film from England, starring Clive Owen as a casino dealer. It has a fabulously intricate plot, full of surprises to the very end. The ensemble of actors is wonderful. It's all about deceit, isolation, detachment, corruption, full of irony. It's about a man at war with himself, trying to rise above his station, who just can't achieve success or a trusting relationship, rather like Elgar. It keeps you on the edge of your seat for an hour and thirty-five minutes. A fitting movie for a British week, and five Farklempt stars! If I could give six, I would, because Ralph Fiennes is not in it.
Afterward, we returned to John Andrew's Restaurant for another stupendous meal. Unlike the trendy restaurants of Lenox and Great Barrington that have a loud New York Bistro feel, here you can enjoy great food at reasonable prices in a lovely, quiet setting, with excellent service. Dinner began with Ayshet Hayil for Carol. We split a salad of baby spinach, onions marinated in raspberry vinaigrette, haricots verts and asparagus, so garden fresh that a guy at the next table complained of a worm in his salad. He was offended because he was a vegetarian. Carol had a delicious piece of halibut, and I had an extraordinary pasta of basil tagliatelle with XVOO (extra virgin olive oil), garlic, and lobster. For dessert, poached peaches with basil ice cream and...what else?...crème anglaise! The wine was a $20 bottle of Guigal Côte-du-Rhone. Later that night, Gilda and Sam came in. We found out that Harry had charged Nancy and Joel a penalty for cancelling, even though it was well in advance. Gilda asked what time breakfast was. Harry said it was 8:00 AM. Gilda, hoping to sleep late, said, "Eight o'clock?!" Harry replied, "Eight...eight-ten...maybe eight-fifteen."
Saturday morning, we had breakfast. Gilda and Sam and Carol went off to Tanglewood to hear the dress rehearsal of Britten's War Requiem. They said that the Shed was packed and everyone sang out. A breathtaking performance. They had lunch at Cheesecake Charlie's, a new place in Great Barrington that they said was quite good (while I enjoyed Philly Cheese Steak at the Berkshire School, which looked like gray pre-chewed meat that had been spat out. Tasted OK, though. Meanwhile, the dress rehearsal went so well. The orchestra must have been bad boys and girls, as I had been, and not looked at their scores too much before they came. Today, they played much, much better. The soloists held back. The chorus did not. Jane had done her work well. She is able to get into the music, to jump and dance most expressively to convey the meaning of the music, while still bringing everyone in where they need to be. What a beautiful piece of work this Gerontius turns out to be!! The solo parts are ravishingly gorgeous, and the orchestration is so colorful and nuanced. Like Otello, in which Verdi made Shakespeare's words sing, so here, Elgar takes a rather poor poem (even if he used the copy given him by the priest at his wedding, with handwritten additions by the priest of the annotations that General Gordon wrote in his own copy as he faced death at the hands of the Mahdi's troops at Khartoum--General Gordon was, of course, played by Ralph Fiennes, his eyes ever-sensitive in the face of death), and brings real meaning to it through music. Once more, the right side of the brain triumphs over the left. I took a photo with Frank Nemhauser, now the Artistic Director of the Festival, who, 15 years ago this summer, tried to throw me out of this place during my first year, when he was Bass Section Leader. For details, see Un Poco Accelerando .
The concert was said by many to be the best in the history of the BCF. The first orchestral rehearsal did wonders for them. Friday's dissonances gave way to a powerful and sensitive rendition. The chorus was magnificent. Jane taught us well, so well that we were able to express ourselves without too much fear of the technicalities. The soloists sang to perfection. Jon Garrison made everyone, including himself, weep. So did Marietta Simpson. John Cheek was commanding and clear. Jane was an expressive guardian angel in flight, shepherding us all into heaven. There was a thunderous ovation.
At the post-concert roast, Patty Kruglak made a very gracious and articulate presentation to Jane, who responded with her customary eloquence and warmth. And so it was over. Elgar said, quoting Ruskin, "This is the best of me," and we all gave it our best. Despite my problems with Newman's poem, the work itself makes me wonder....what if they're right????...................Nahhhhhhhhh. But what a way to go!