Some things, like hearing an evening of chamber music on a barge in the East River, sound better on paper than they actually are. And some things work exactly the opposite way: for example, the composer David del Tredici. Bargemusic presented soprano Courtenay Budd in a program of two song cycles from the 1990s by the iconoclastic composer Saturday night as part of their Here and Now series.
Neo-Romantic is not the most fashionable moniker for a composer these days, and art song is a tricky territory for composers with unabashedly traditional or sentimental leanings (Leonard Bernstein’s Arias and Barcaroles comes to mind.) But del Tredici gives us music that is direct and honest but remains in the realm of tasteful and new.
His music is an odd and sometimes confusing amalgam of styles derived from the heyday of 19th century German lieder, and other eclectic influences ranging from Copland to cabaret. He clearly loves the music of the past, and Schumann’s lieder were on my mind throughout the evening. In this program, his choice of emotionally distant, wordy poems provided a sharp tonic to his heartfelt music, keeping these songs from veering into the realm of the gaudy or senile.
In “Miz Inez Sez” (from 1996) on poems of Colette Inez, who was present here, del Tredici’s writing for the piano achieves a fluid, busy, yet inwardly noble, character worthy of Schumann: that is, when he isn’t conjuring Debussy or Piazzolla. As the boat rocked in the wake of NYC Water Taxis, these moments of musical familiarity layered comfortable déjà-vu over mild seasickness.
“Miz Inez Sez” suffers from the tendency – almost a tic – of indecisively repeating text at the end of most songs, meandering as at the end of oratorio arias. Schumann or Wolf would have made no bones ending a tune when it has run its course, but del Tredici seemed to strive here for length over clarity.
His writing for voice is both adventuresome and practical. Here his model is Wolf more than Schumann, with a tendency to write in a high tessitura on repeated notes, allowing the words themselves to sing, as in the refrain of“Good News! Nilda is Back” taken in upwardly striving sequences, and the breathy flute-like squeaks asked of her in “The Beckoning.” Budd sang the first with a rough and garish timbre, especially in the higher passages.
The demands of the first cycle seemed to bevel her voice smooth; after intermission she sang the velvety melodic phrases with attractive tenderness. There was some sloppy English diction here and there, and a tendency to over-do a raspy “American” dialect both in places where it was called for and where it seemed not.
The later songs, “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter” (from 1998, on Joshua Beckman) are both more concise and emotionally precise, as if he’d polished his craft in the earlier set. The allusiveness found in the earlier songs was forgivably subtle, but here in the song “Rebellion,” quotes from Wagner (the Ride of the Valkyries and the “Redemption” motive from Götterdämmerung,) Richard Strauss (Dance of the Seven Veils,) and the Tristan Chord seemed a bit much, distracting from the point of the song. (What was it, after all?) But this was a small exception in a set of solid songs that would be useful in the repertoire.
Del Tredici looked a bit like Siegfried (Roy’s, not Wagner’s) in G-Star Raw jeans and leather vest. As pianist he brought to the event a breezy, devil-may-care attitude, pointing up the more theatrical highlights in the accompaniment. Yet he seemed less like the composer of the work than a hired accompanist in a cabaret, hitting most of the notes and staying out of the way.