at Mandel Hall

April 24, 1992

In John Eaton’s Notes on Moonlight, the moon is both a harsh and coy mistress. The song cycle, premiered by the Contemporary Chamber Players in their annual Paul Fromm concert, presents a series of lunar images from five poets’ sometimes worshipful, sometimes ambivalent musings. Scored for soprano and mezzo backed up by a chamber ensemble, it’s the most spellbinding vocal work I’ve heard all season.

Eaton, who recently joined the University of Chicago’s music faculty after a long, distinguished tenure at Indiana University, is widely acknowledged as a contemporary master of vocal gesture. (He’s also a composer of electronic music, and a synthesizer built by him and Robert Moog after two decades of tinkering will be unveiled at a concert later this month.) A student of Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions, Eaton first caught the music establishment’s ear almost 30 years ago with Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a song cycle for soprano. Since then he’s written a number of vocal works, most of them noted for the textural filigree provided by microtonal techniques, an Eaton trademark. I remember being impressed with the “bending” of pitch and the unusually colored harmonies that enhanced the emotional spontaneity and verite in his operas Danton and Robespierre and especially The Cry of Clytaemnestra when I heard them several years ago. More than any other living American composer I can think of, Eaton has come up with a bold, expressive style that sustains dramatic interest.

The opening piece of Notes on Moonlight is set to “Romance de la luna, luna” by Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet known for his intense melodramatic flair. In the 1924 poem a boy infatuated with a dancing moon that has come down from the heavens beseeches it to leave so it won’t be caught by marauding Gypsies. It leaves–but takes the boy with it. When the Gypsies return, they’re saddened by the death of the child. In this macabre meditation on love and death, the silvery goddess of the night is at once mesmerizing and menacing. To the accompaniment of violin, viola, and harp tuned a quarter tone flat, soprano Rebecca Berg (the moon) and mezzo Nelda Nelson (the boy) conveyed fear and ecstasy in their high-pitched, quivering duet–an effective translation of the poem’s emotional rapids.

In Wallace Stevens’s 1923 poem “Lunar Paraphrase,” which follows, the moon is “the mother of pathos and pity.” Here the mezzo-soprano waxes lyrical in a somber, sinuous ode. After the fierce passions of the Garcia Lorca, this segment offers a reflective respite while setting the stage for “A la luna de verano,” taken from Leopoldo Lugones’s Lunario sentimental (1909). Lugones’s moon is an object of jealous fury. The accuser–a woman scorned perhaps (Nelson, in an affecting performance)–hurls insults at the moon, mocking the romantic associations it has evoked. After a breathy tirade of sarcasm–with conspiratorial comments from various instruments–her energy is spent. In the last stanza she declares her love for the moon and concludes with ironic emphasis, “Moon, it’s so hot!” In a clever stroke, Eaton uses the percussionist as a counter to the frenzy. At first keeping a distance from the virago, he’s finally swept up by the lunacy.

The moon is the poet’s muse in “Tristesses de la lune” from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. This moon sheds a tear that an insomniac poet “places in his heart,” far from the sun. Filled with precious and erotic images associated with the French symbolists, the poem portrays the moon as a solitary creature whose voluptuousness and calm beauty only poets can appreciate. In Eaton’s musical recasting, the two voices murmur and sigh, sensuously caressing every syllable. Gradually and softly they reach a prolonged rapture that reminded me of the most enchanting of Richard Strauss’s arias. Another deft touch was the harp adding to the pointillist ambience. Without doubt, this is among the most evocative settings of Baudelaire.

The moon held metaphysical meanings for Yeats, who was apt to assign human attributes to its phases. In “Blood and the Moon, Part III”–from his 1933 The Winding Stair–its purity is threatened by man’s lust for blood. Unlike the mysterious seductress in the previous sections, Yeats’s moon is a noble, remote creature–a virgin worthy of adoration only by those whose hands are not stained. Eaton turns the paean–and plea for peace–into a duet in which the singers deliver fluttery declamations. The mood is ethereal and contemplative. Yet maybe because the sincerity is all too obvious, the song doesn’t have quite the emotional heft of its predecessors. Yeats above all requires compassion, and far more convincing musical treatments of his work have been written (by Tippett, for example). It didn’t help that Rebecca Berg faltered a couple of times, but Ralph Shapey’s conducting of the entire cycle was assured and empathetic–just the kind any composer would want for his latest work.

As usual, the CCP program was a grab bag of the classic and the new in 20th-century music. This time the classic was represented by Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, written in 1910 but only discovered almost five decades later. Concise statements of moods, its three “movements” are rather like sketches for the Viennese pioneer’s great works to come. Shapey and the chamber orchestra performed them with ease and clarity. Mysteries of the Horizon is a 1987 Fromm Foundation commission by Eugene O’Brien, a former colleague of Eaton’s at Indiana. In a program note O’Brien says that while writing this one-movement work he came upon an engraving in a 17th-century treatise on architectural perspectives. In the enigmatic illustration was a figure with an alpenhorn raised to his lips standing on a promontory high above a vast plain. The figure makes a striking cameo toward the end of the piece in an offstage horn call, but otherwise the work is mellow and rather purposeless. The music begins lugubriously, clusters of dissonant sounds containing brassy echoes of majestic mountains. Slowly it swells into a brass chorale, where the horn solo makes a welcome intrusion. But before long, it’s dreary business as usual. Shapey and his crew tried hard to apply a glossy veneer, but the only mystery was why he picked this piece.

Shulamit Ran’s Verticals for Piano, composed in 1982 but making its local debut, is a tour de force. The “verticals” are chordal motifs that metamorphose from section to section. Essentially dissonant, the long piece seems a tug-of-war between the impulse to establish melodies and the will to remain fiercely without tonal anchor–as if reflecting a heroic struggle within Ran between her own rhapsodic nature and the more severe tendencies of her mentor Shapey. It’s hard to tell which side prevails–but the music does end with flurries of crashing bells. (I must say I’ve always preferred Ran the rhapsodist to Ran the parodist.) The robust reading of this difficult score by Abraham Stokman once again confirmed his status as one of our town’s best keyboard interpreters of new music.

Like Eaton’s song cycle, Christopher Rouse’s Ku-Ka-Ilimoku (1978) pays homage to an icon of mythology. Ku is a Hawaiian god, as protean as Zeus and Odin, and among his several guises is that of Ku-Ka-Ilimoku, the god of war. Not surprisingly, Rouse’s evocation of the martial spirit features an exclusive arsenal of percussion instruments. In five succinct minutes the music traverses all the moods of a war dance: from savagery to exaltation to delirium–all at top volume. While of limited musical interest, it is nonetheless a flashy showcase for any worthy percussionist. The soloists–Patricia Dash, Edward Harrison, James Ross, and Douglas Waddell–demonstrated precise timing and acrobatic skills. They easily won the evening’s loudest applause.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.