Kent Nagano has a long history of inventive programming, particularly in the chamber music repertoire. His first real break came in 1982 when he was personally chosen by Frank Zappa to record some of his orchestral music with the London Symphony. In 2008 he collaborated with Zebedee Nungak, an Inuit writer, taking a translated version of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat on tour in Nunavik, the Inuit homeland in Quebec. And of course, it is impossible not to mention his legendary collaboration with Icelandic pop singer Björk at the 1996 Verbier Festival with Pierrot Lunaire, the centerpiece of tonight’s concert.

Kent Nagano © Benjamin Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Benjamin Ealovega

Tonight’s program, while not as groundbreaking as those mentioned above, was equally ambitious in its conception and originality. Guests took center stage at the Maison Symphonique—soloists from Nagano’s very own Bavarian State Opera. Also intriguing was the stage design: the main house was closed and a great number of seats were placed directly on the stage, encircling the performers. This kind of intimacy was no mistake, for the program was to consist of (as Nagano put it) “after-dinner music,” music certainly not fit to hear from a great distance. The pieces were a kind of tribute to the evolution of musical melodrama, beginning in the early Romantic period and winding its way forward in time, to that moment when tonality was abandoned altogether.

Sporano Annegeer Stumphius was the real star of this evening—her diction was absolutely impeccable and full of intense expression. In fact, she did not “sing” at all this evening. The Schumann, Wagner and Liszt are Sprechstimme pieces, recited theatrically rather than sung, and Pierrot Lunaire calls for the singing-speech technique which would come to be one of Schoenberg’s most influential inventions.

Schumann’s Ballade vom Heideknaben is a kind of recitation with accompaniment by a small chamber ensemble, with text by Friedrich Hebbel. It is a singularly bizarre work, when compared to the rest of Schumann’s output, though highly effective in its dramatic conception. The musical accompaniment is sparse, but potent. Stumphius was a master storyteller in this work, crafting such a convincing narrative that translation was hardly necessary to understand the poem. Despite the originality of the program, and the entire evening, it became quite clear that although the players from the Bavarian State Opera were very fine instrumentalists, they were obviously more suited for orchestral and operatic performance than solo and chamber performance. More cuing from all of the musicians, especially violinist Arben Spahiu, would have contributed to a more cohesive musical product.

If Nagano is was once best known for his daring and original concert programming, he is now known as well for his laudable intellect in the field of music academia. Before the performance of Pierrot Lunaire the maestro delivered an exhaustive (and not exactly brief) discourse on the history, reception and meaning of this oft-despised work, reminding the audience that the music was meant as a departure from the elitism of classical music, and akin to the singing style of an untrained cabaret singer. There were threats on Schoenberg’s life for the sins he committed against that great sonic art.

Stumphius re-entered—this time, curiously, amplified. I think this was unnecessary, as the audience would have had no problem hearing her unaltered voice. Despite Nagano’s extensive knowledge and understanding of the work, he was arguably an unnecessary addition to the performance, as numerous ensembles have successfully performed this work without a conductor (eighth blackbird even did it memorized and staged). This interpretation, although under the guidance of a brilliant man, seemed to lack preparation and energy.

Further, although Schoenberg wrote in the score that “The performers’ task here is at no time to derive the mood and character of the individual pieces from the meaning of the words, but always solely from the music,” Stumphius and the ensemble consistently ignored minute details notated in the score concerning segues between movements and Sprechstimme vs. normal singing, and the performance overall again lacked a sense of cohesion. On the other hand, if interpreters are to follow every single detail of Schoenberg’s score as if taking orders from God, where, then, lies the chance for interpretation? Schoenberg was a man who expected his performers to “realize” rather than “interpret” his music. Perhaps a strict adherence to the score is exactly what Nagano was trying to avoid, in order to create an original rendering.

While this program was not executed with as much care and preparation as many concerts in the Maison Symphonique, it was still wholly unique in its conception, and made for a fascinating look at some rare repertoire.