Twentieth century music is filled with works for narrator. Why this should be the case is not exactly a mystery. Ours has been a century of ironic detachment -- how else to distance ourselves from some of its horrors? -- and few things create irony like the contrast between spoken words and music.
Saturday night in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory in the Baltimore Symphony "Discovery Series," conductor David Zinman, members of the orchestra and two narrators performed two of these works: Sir William Walton's "Facade" and Igor Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale." The performances of this very difficult music were spectacularly good.
The problem with "Facade," which the young Walton wrote in collaboration with the poet Edith Sitwell in 1922, is that it is nonsense of the rarefied, elegant kind that Lewis Carroll wrote in "Jabberwocky." As if that were not enough, "Facade's" text and music must be spit out and played at speeds that make today's fastest rappers seem positively tardy.
Lines like "The stars in their apiaries,/ Sylphs in their aviaries" emerge at something like the speed of light and they must be accompanied by ensemble playing that is unbelievably accurate and light on its feet. But Zinman positively revels in such rhythmically complex, difficult music.
The narrator in "Facade" was Nancie Kennedy, a soprano who teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. She (( delivered all 21 of Sitwell's crazy poems with the kind of apparently careless grace that comes only from security in one's considerable skills. Not the least of the many delightful things about Kennedy's performance were the many accents she used for these verses. She has more of them than most women have sweaters.
Even better -- perhaps because the music is greater -- was the performance of the Stravinsky work. This setting of a Russian tale of a soldier's pact with the devil was composed while the composer sat out World War I in Switzerland. Its great inventiveness derives from its manipulation of rhythm, but its playful text is combined with music that, while sometimes almost ugly, is also moving. The text was narrated with virtuosity and humor by Byron Jennings -- an actor so extraordinary that he could make the telephone book a compelling dramatic experience. Zinman conducted the music's hair-trigger curves with clarity and energy and his players -- particularly violinist Herbert Greenberg -- performed with impressive virtuosity.