NMC presents The Wit of Jurg Wyttenbach reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, April 18, 2009, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

Pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, curator, and all-around music-man, Jurg Wyttenbach brings Toronto fine gifts from his native Switzerland, a country not known for its music.  As curator, Wyttenbach showcases songs: songs from a little-known collection of Scottish, Irish and Welsh folksongs that Beethoven set to music during a 10 year commission with an English publisher; some European folksongs set by Beethoven, including two ‘Boleros’ and a variation on a Ukrainian ‘bandura’ air. Wyttenbach himself arranged three of Beethoven’s ‘British’ folksongs, and seven of Mussorgsky’s ‘Nursery’ songs which he regards as special, ‘in the moment’ works.  We enjoyed a handful of Wyttenbach’s own compositions: five song creations, a mock-heroic duel pitting flute against clarinet, a ‘Sonatina’ for solo piano that Wyttenbach performed himself, and his Divisions for Piano and Nine String Instruments that he conducted from the piano. Wyttenbach’s wit is to bring new song and colour to our musical culture.

In response to Wyttenbach’s ‘eclectic and challenging’ vocal repertoire, vocal consultant Mary Morrison selected three singers (funded by Roger D. Moore) who were right on. Melinda Delorme, singing in Russian, lifted the room into the realm of pure pleasure as her supple soprano dramatized fully the spirit of Mussorgsky’s children-in-a-nursery.

Mezzo Kathleen Promane sang the most beautiful song of the evening—Beethoven’s melancholy love song “Air Cosaque”, accompanied by Fujiko Imajishi (violin), David Hetherington (cello), and Wyttenbach on piano. She joined the same instrumentalists and smooth-voiced soprano Xin Wang to produce some elegant duet harmonies in Beethoven’s “Three Folksongs (Duetti)”, and Ms. Promane sang solo, often near the bottom of her register in a style close to sprechtgesang with composer Wyttenbach and Robert Aitken on flute in three love songs based on poems by Ilse Lasker-Schuler.

Soprano Xin Wang joined her voice in elegant dialogue with David Hetherington’s cello, sliding together down glissando passages and the bumping over the weird broken down phrasing of the four ‘dramolets’ that Wyttenbach composed on texts by American iconoclast e.e. cummings. If there was a musical highlight to the evening it was Ms. Wang singing three Beethoven folksongs arranged by Wyttenbach for flute, cello and harp (Erica Goodman), making sparkling music.

In a pre-concert talk with Robert Aitken, Wyttenbach spoke about his style of composition that included the difficult lessons of the second Viennese school (minus atonality and serialization) along with more audience-friendly extra-musical techniques such as “musical actions, scenic collages, and instrumental theatre.” In “Flute Alors” Robert Aitken and clarinetist Max Christie appear to menace, each other in a musical duelette that includes threatening words and gestures, verbal and musical insults (repeating ‘musicien’ over and over till it begins to sound like ‘maudit chien’). The music itself reminds me of the flow of shapes in a Norman McLaren film, squiggles, squirts, raspberries and farts, playful and funny, and also not-so-funny.

Wyttenbach made some allusions in conversation to his serio-comic vision of things. Speaking of his interest in love songs he said, “Love is not so funny, sometimes.” And speaking of a piece involving a clown, he said, “In the end, the clown is completely alone.  Elsewhere, he says,” I use musical and scenic means in an attempt at showing existential problems.” But he says this with a twinkle in his eye and his mouth set in a grin that reminds me of Frank Sinatra, who resolved existential problems with the musical phrase, “do(o)-be(e)-do(o)-be(e)-do(o).

There will be a lot more Wyttenbach wit in a Lecture-Recital, Monday, April 20, 7 PM, at Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Ave. Further details

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