The second of the Baryshnikov Arts Center‘s concert series paying tribute to notable arts patrons featured music by Francis Poulenc and Mark Applebaum. The concert centered on Surrealism, and specifically the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, who commissioned and supported important works in France in the first half of the 20th century.
When we think of Surrealism, we think of poetry and visual art, not music. But a surreal evening came to pass the other night nonetheless, capped by a bracing performance of Poulenc’s Le bal masqué (1932), a “Cantata Profane” commissioned by the de Noialles, with text from poems by Symbolist-Surrealist poet Max Jacob. Preceding the Poulenc and in the same spirit were two aggressively interesting modernistic pieces by Applebaum, on hand to lead and perform his work.
Applebaum first performed his own “Aphasia,” a popular 2010 work of sound art and choreography in which a lone performer makes a series of precisely specified and timed hand gestures in sync with a sequence of recorded sounds, all derived from the vocalizations of a single singer. The gestures are funny, abrupt, random, and surrealistic in the sense that their meaning, if there is any meaning, lies in a mysterious dream world.
The sounds suggest cartoon voices, machinery, electricity, and plumbing, though they’re all digitally manipulated vocalizations. The only intelligible verbiage comes in the closing section when the voice counts upwards, in multiple languages, rising to an ending that leaves us hanging. Applebaum told us that 62 performers in 18 countries have performed “Aphasia,” and despite its difficulty, you can see why – it’s frightful fun.
Applebaum then conducted a cohesive eight-piece pick-up ensemble in the premiere of his Control Freak 2, commissioned for the occasion. This piece is composed of sounds and gestures in sequences generated by a complex system of notation, timing, and choice that will make every performance different. Supple-voiced baritone Tyler Duncan sang, spoke and otherwise conveyed lines of perfect iambic pentameter and humorous, twisted topicality, all from sonnets created by poet K. Silem Mohammad from anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets, in what must be one of the most impressive feats of wordsmithing of recent times.
Though clearly influenced by John Cage’s associative scores, the four-movement suite sounded fresh and original, quirky, funny, even edgy in a benign sort of way. It called for an unorthodox and precise kind of musicality the ensemble was well up for.
The musicians clicked equally well without a conductor in the Poulenc, painting a portrait of Paris’s interwar café society with eight dance-like movements and Max Jacob’s poetry sung in French (with supertitles) by an obviously amused Duncan, who dove with fervor into the surrealistic spirit of the thing. The baritone’s nimble diction and rich tone, sparkling playing by violinist Tessa Lark in the ferocious “Bagatelle” movement, and intense work from pianist Steven Beck and the rest of the ensemble in the Finale were among the highlights.
The final program in the three-concert series will be presented Dec. 16 and 17. Details and tickets can be found at the Baryshnikov Arts Center website.