Saturday, February 08, 2014

Sans Ensemble: Beth Weisser Goes Solo

Here's an annotated series of tweets as a review of Elizabeth Weisser's concert at Mannes College on Tuesday, February 4th. Weisser is the violist and Director of Development for Talea Ensemble, one of the most remarkable new music ensembles in a city that now boasts more than a few such groups.

Tweet 1: "@AnEarful: From world premieres to Schumann - violist Beth Weisser of @TaleaEnsemble w/piano & electronics TONIGHT @MannesCollege. #free #music"

I believe in promoting the artists I like on Twitter, Facebook and in conversation. I did get one thing wrong in my zeal, however: There were no world premieres, but there was a U.S. Premiere of a piece by Austrian composer Bernhard Gander.

Tweet 2: "@AnEarful: Beth Weisser of @taleaensemble about to kick it off with Xenakis, then Bach, Diaz de Leon, Gander, Dillon and Schumann. #newmusic"

Six composers, three of them living. Even someone barely familiar with composed music would probably note that something interesting was going on here. It was a program designed with intelligence and a keen musicality.

Tweet 3: "@AnEarful: Embellie by Xenakis is an agitated incantation, expertly played by Beth Weisser at Mannes - and Bach's BWV 1005 followed perfectly."

Iannis Xenakis was a Greek-born France-based composer (he died in 2001) known for spiky, virtuosic music such as his demanding string quartets. While he made use of electronics at times, Embellie, composed in 1981, is strictly a solo piece for viola. It's full of dark-hued tones and haunting sounds produced by well-deployed extended techniques. Weisser truly is an expert at this sort of thing, having played music that asks almost anything of her, short of smashing her instrument over her knee.

Bach's Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C Major has been transcribed for many instruments so playing it on viola is not much of a leap. Composed in 1720, it may be the longest and most difficult of the works Bach wrote in this vein. According to All Music, the great Jascha Heifetz "...used to break out in a cold sweat and suffer nervous bow-shakes when playing it..." but here was Beth Weisser in her chic silver and black outfit playing it, as she did the Xenakis, without sheet music. There was a moment or two where she seemed on the verge of losing the thread but she never did. Her approach, along with the deep sound of the viola, brought out the extraordinary harmonic sophistication in Bach's writing and the lyrical dance-like sections sang out beautifully. "21st century Bach," as my friend accurately observed when the applause had died down.

Tweet 4: "@AnEarful: ii. 23 by @m_diazdeleon is a ballet for viola & electronics - in a fractured mirror, executed flawlessly by Beth Weisser @MannesCollege"

I was excited about Mario Diaz de León's entry on the program, having been introduced to his tough-minded music last year. As it happens, Weisser has been performing the cryptically titled ii. 23 since at least 2009 when she played it with "an impressive old-fashioned virtuosity." It still sounds as fresh as a newly crushed daisy as the viola jabs at and soars over a prickly yet rich electronic soundscape. The "fractured mirror" refers to the way Diaz de León's programming sometimes seemed to be an amplified echo of what the viola played. After the Bach, it was a thrilling romp on the cutting edge. You can hear an excellent recording, though not by Weisser, on Diaz de León's Enter Houses Of from 2009.

Tweet 5: "@AnEarful: There's a violent play in Bernhard Gander's The Orpheus File II, like tiger cubs grown too old for sparring. 1st US perf by Beth Weisser."

Bernhard Gander's piece, more accurately titled Die Orpheus Akte II, is a remarkable piece for viola, piano and shards of aggressive, noisy recorded sound that threaten to overwhelm the acoustic instruments. It did feel a little dangerous, but with a sense of fun, hence my imagery above. Weisser's fluent, commanding playing was matched by Stephen Gosling on piano while David Adamcyk dealt out the electronics without a hitch.
While this was indeed the first time Die Orpheus was performed on our shores, it certainly won't be the last: Talea is including it in their Inside Out concert at the Austrian Cultural Forum on March 4th, along with music by Pierluigi Billone and Olga Neuwirth. U.S. premieres of works by all three composers will be featured a few days later at Bohemian National Hall. You're running out of excuses now, aren't you?

Tweet 6: "@AnEarful: James Dillon's lyrical yet astringent Siorram should lead perfectly into Schumann's Marchenbilder to close Beth Weisser's concert."

James Dillon is a prolific Scottish composer whose work Talea has championed for some time. Weisser has played the knotty Siorram before but after the detonation of the Gander it seemed almost introspective. Siorram is the Gaelic word for "sheriff" although it's hard to guess at any programmatic content for the short piece. Perhaps some of the lyricism is derived from the Scottish traditional Siorram Sios Siorram Suas, but the limb I'm on is about to crack.

Tweet 7: "@AnEarful: Indeed, Schumann's sparkling, song-filled Marchenbilder sends us into the night on warm billows of melody. A triumph for Beth Weisser!"

It may be unfashionable to say so, but I'll take Schumann over Mendelssohn or Brahms any day. I even like his symphonies and the big pieces like Genoveva, one of the most sheerly beautiful operas of the Romantic era. That said, there is no doubt that his strongest body of work is chamber music and songs. Marchenbilder, or Fairy Tale Pictures, stands with his best work and Weisser and Gosling gave a stylish, assured and colorful performance. You could clearly see the knight defending the lady in the brisk second movement, along with all the other characters Schumann brought to life. Marchenbilder was in a way the most old-fashioned music played at Mannes, even including the Bach, but there is a reason we still tell fairy tales to our children and those "warm billows of melody" were just what the ecstatic audience needed as we headed out to negotiate the ice, slush and snow that awaited us on the streets of New York City.

Like a well-made mix tape, Elizabeth Weisser's concert was a captivating look into one of the most fascinating minds on the current musical scene. I felt lucky to be there.

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