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Death Speaks

January 26, 2012

They might look like ants in the photograph I snapped on my iPhone from my faraway vantage point at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Hall last night, but the people standing on the stage are today's GIANTS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC, at least certain circles might think so.

Three of the performers -- Bryce Dessner (guitar), Shara Worden (vocals and bass drum) and Owen Pallett (violin) -- are indie pop / underground New York art scene mavens. Their names are most closely associated with such modish rockers as Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Grizzly Bear. The fourth person on stage, composer Nico Muhly (piano), is a darling of the contemporary classical scene, where blurred genre boundaries are as much the rage as mullet hairdos and black eyeliner on men.

The piece that the quartet performed on stage was the world premiere of Death Speaks, a song cycle by David Lang inspired by the songs of Schubert in which Death features as a "flesh and blood" character who often speaks, rather than a faceless metaphor ("Death and the Maiden" is perhaps the most famous example of this personification of the grim reaper in Schubert's oeuvre.) Lang's piece was co-commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts and Carnegie Hall.

As Lang astutely put it in the program notes: "Art songs have been moving out of classical music in the last many years -- indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert's sensibilities now lie, a better match for direct storytelling and intimate emotionality."

For better and for worse, I kind of agree with the composer -- the confessional, quasi-whining style of the likes of Rufus Wainwright seems like the place where the modern art song sits right now.

The problem is that this incarnation of the art song isn't often very good.

The key error that Lang makes with Death Speaks is to conceive it as a partner piece for his luminous work, The Little Match Girl Passion. Match Girl (which Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices performed adequately but not terribly movingly last night) is a dark, frigidly cold piece with -- when it's done with precision and careful attention to seamless line like the performance I heard in Los AngelesĀ as part of the Jacaranda Music Series last year -- a strong, deeply warm heart. For the most part though, the work is a hesitant thing, full of sputtering phrases that disappear into the icy musical ether and glacial energy.

To then follow up that piece with another work that is equally slow and low-energy, as is the case with Death Speaks, is a mistake. Lang's new cycle, I'm afraid to say, is laborious, repetitive and extremely dull. The mood remains pretty much the same -- dark and dirge-like -- throughout. The performers last night exacerbated this fact by hiding within themselves and playing the work in a sort of reverie. I couldn't have felt more detached from the music by the end of the show. The only thing that stood out for me was the opening song, which reminded me of Dido's insistent incantation, "Remember Me," in her lament at the end of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

Sadly, I don't think I'll remember much about last night's musical experience.

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