Gertrude Stein’s Texts as Songs Spoken by Instrumentalists
Music Review 'Songs of Wars I Have Seen'
ST. PAUL — When the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. presented Heiner Goebbels’s "Surrogate Cities," a big bear of a spectacle, in 2000, you had to wonder how much of its extraordinary impact stemmed from the setting. A lot, it seemed.
This was the first production to be mounted in the Memminger Auditorium in Charleston, S.C., since it had lost its roof to Hurricane Hugo 11 years before.
Fitted out with a new roof but otherwise left largely a ruin awaiting further renovations (which have since taken place), it provided an ideally rough and rugged atmosphere for Mr. Goebbels’s sonic blast.
But with his "Songs of Wars I Have Seen," given its American premiere at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts here on Friday and Saturday evenings as the centerpiece of the four-week International Chamber Orchestra Festival being presented by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Mr. Goebbels showed that he can also create magic in a more standard concert hall. He is in some ways the most theatrical of composers, but in this work, as in "Surrogate Cities," the theater lies more in atmosphere than in action.
The new work draws its title and texts from Gertrude Stein’s 1945 Paris memoir, "Wars I Have Seen," and the stage set — distant, dimly lighted and self-contained — consisted of two parts: in the foreground, a living room, with comfortable-looking chairs and lamps, populated by female instrumentalists in variegated clothing, evoking the world of Stein; raised behind, a group of male wind players and percussionists in black dress amid bare light fixtures suggesting the starkness and austerity of wartime.
The performers were drawn from two of the festival’s four guest orchestras, the London Sinfonietta, which was featured last week, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a period band that takes over this weekend.
The work was commissioned by the Southbank Center, which both orchestras occupy, and given its premiere there in 2007. Sian Edwards, the original conductor, had to withdraw here because of a family emergency; the young Estonian Anu Tali, on short notice, showed excellent command.
The "songs," except for one number sung by a percussionist, are in fact spoken by the instrumentalists, with studied artlessness. Mr. Goebbels’s typically voracious settings represent, as one performer said in a preconcert discussion, "the accretions of centuries." And civilizations, she might have added.
Mr. Goebbels’s swashbuckling temperament is well exemplified by his deployment of the period strings in swatches of Matthew Locke’s music for Shakespeare’s "Tempest," from 1764, perversely swathed in techno electronics.
But the culmination came as Paul Archibald, the Sinfonietta’s principal trumpeter, squeezed out haunting microtonal phrases over the unearthly ringing of Tibetan prayer bowls played by the rest of the ensemble.
I walked away from "Surrogate Cities" stunned, and have since yearned to hear it again. Instead, and better yet, I heard a different Goebbels monument and again walked away stunned.
One hopes that these works will find their way to New York soon.
James R. Oestreich
NY Times (US), 21 January 2009