We are always saying goodbye to someone, whether through retirement or death. But we’re always welcoming exciting new works of substance, too. Now and then these cyclical antipodes meet in one bittersweet evening. It happened at Sunday night’s Carnegie Hall concert featuring the New York premiere of Penelope, the late André Previn’s final work.
The compelling monodrama received a focused and, clearly, loving performance from a small galaxy of classical music notables. The Emerson String Quartet has announced it will retire at the end of next year. Soprano Renée Fleming has been championing contemporary composers of late. Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has recorded and released three albums during the pandemic and plays the music of Philip Glass with as much gravity as she does J.S. Bach. Finally, narrating the spoken sections of Tom Stoppard’s libretto, Uma Thurman demonstrated an ability to shape her voice into musical contours.
Also on the menu was a solemn but glowing new setting by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts of “Evening,” a melancholy climate-change poem by Dorianne Laux. Songs by Grieg and Fauré, piano music by Glass, and Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor (Op. 11) rounded out the program.
The text to Penelope is Stoppard’s depiction of the story of The Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’s famously loyal wife. Previn wrote the music for Fleming’s voice and for the extraordinary synchrony the Emerson String Quartet has developed over its 47-year career. The composer was still working on it when he died in 2019; fortunately his editor and friend David Fetherolf was able, with some effort, to realize it fully from the notes the composer left.
The resulting hourlong suite-like production proves perfectly suited to Fleming’s warm magic. At Carnegie Hall her whole silvery range floated on one easeful front. A program insert included the full libretto, but she made the English text quite followable even from the back of the hall.
Though studded with humor, the piece has a warlike aggressiveness, suited to the angst of Penelope’s lonely years and the violent drama of their end with Odysseus’s return. Dissonant chords from the strings boiled under Penelope’s tangled resentment early in the drama, as Thurman read:
Shall I curse Paris the wife-stealer or Helen the bolter? Or Aphrodite who pimped her for him? Dare I curse the primum mobile Godfather Zeus who swanned past Leda’s defenses and begat the slut?
You can almost hear Stoppard cackling in the background at his use of the vulgar vernacular and avian play on words.
Hero and Dog
Similarly, flighty piano riffs accompany “she had the glow of a goddess and a bottom like a cleft peach.” The keyboard turns muscular as Penelope brings Odysseus into her story, followed by a cantabile accompaniment to her recollection of her happiness when their marriage was fresh. Light and vampy strains underlie sex talk, while frantic arpeggios from the strings darken the mood as Fleming sings of the genesis of the conflict that would take her husband away for 20 years: “…the gods could no longer hold back their sport. Their laughter pealed like thunder…It was war.”
At times the music directly echoes the words. The strings skitter as “For three more years his name flickered like a moth in travelers’ tales and rumor…” Dinnerstein was called upon to seemingly try to tear the piano’s hair out as Penelope recounts how, bewailing Odysseus’s absence, she rose “each bloodshot dawn and with tear-filled eyes searched the horizon.” And a low pizzicato murmur illustrates the last breath of the hero’s devoted dog Argus.
Penelope serves as a noble encore for Previn, who died in 2019. At the start of the concert the Emerson String Quartet also acknowledged the more recent death of Juilliard String Quartet violist Roger Tapping, who died January 18 of cancer. That loss has cast a pall, for the moment, on New York City’s classical music scene.
An Adagio and a Mad Rush
The Emerson began the concert by dedicating Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor (Op. 11) to Tapping. They presented the first movement in a tone somehow both buttery and salty, perfectly synchronizing elastic tempo swells around the thunderous bee-stings of the main three-note motif. It was lovely to hear the famous second movement – often heard independently, in an orchestral version, as the “Adagio for Strings” – in context and by one of the preeminent quartets of our time. It sounded especially poignant, weaving beautiful patterns while maintaining sublime suspense, resolutions ever-elusive. Barber showed a love for the middle voice in this string quartet, giving the viola many featured moments.
Simone Dinnerstein then took the stage to play Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush” with feeling and flash to spare. Especially in her interpretation, the piece both mesmerizes and stuns, part Schubert Impromptu, part rock concert – until, to my mind, it overstays its welcome. But her dedication to Glass’s piano music, which now transcends the minimalism moniker, has helped lift it, deservedly, into the canon.
Songs of Nature
Dinnerstein returned to the stage to accompany Fleming in a set of songs on themes of nature. Two by Grieg included one of my favorites, “Zur Rosenzeit.” Two by Fauré included “Les berceaux,” which showcased Fleming’s exquisite lower register.
Kevin Puts’s “Evening” is something more than a “song.” It’s a substantial piece with a piano part that’s noteworthy in itself. Fleming sang it with a solemn but glowing tone and spirit that made the poet Dorianne Laux’s lines seem less hopeless. “Moonlight pours down/without mercy,” the poem begins, immediately turning the usual stuff of romance and illumination into something oppressive. It evokes disappearing land, “islands swallowed/like prehistoric fish,” and avers that “we are doomed,/done for, damned, and still/the light reaches us…even here where the moon is/hidden from us, even though/the stars are so far away.”
For one evening, at least, the stars weren’t far away at all – right there on the stage at Carnegie Hall, in fact, saluting those who are gone and celebrating the sunlit creativity of today’s artists.