Soprano, pianist bring passion, drama of 'Winter's Tale' to life


February 23, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Midway through through last night's performance by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and pianist Mark Markham of Charles Wuorinen's "A Winter's Tale," several members of the audience turned a page of the program. It was only then that at least one listener at this Chamber Music Society of Baltimore concert in the Baltimore Museum of Art remembered that there was a text. That's how dramatic a setting of Dylan Thomas' great poem Wuorinen has constructed, and how flawlessly (and with what perfect diction) it was sung by Bryn-Julson and how excitingly played by Markham.

Wuorinen has been famous for so long -- he won the Pulitizer Prize for music almost 25 years ago -- that it comes as something of a shock to realize that he is only 54 and has a great deal of music still to write. Too much is made, it seems, about the mathematical precision of Wuorinen's work, the rigor with which he applies 12-tone technique to almost all aspects of music. True, very few composers write with as much economy of RTC means, but Wuorinen's music is as passionate and dramatic as it is elegant. With "A Winter's Tale," however, he has written a piece that grabs the listener by the heart and the ears.

Like all wonderful setting of poetry, whether by Schubert or Britten, it demonstrates that words plus music can equal something greater than either -- in this case almost 30 minutes of song that never lets up in its passage through Thomas' journey of

sexual and spiritual crisis, reaching an extraordinary climax in coloratura patter that musically embodies the figurative language with which the poet depicts the pleasures of orgasm.

"A Winter's Tale" was written for Bryn-Julson, and it is hard to think of another singer -- except perhaps the late Jan DeGaetani -- who could have sung it as well. She is a great singer -- she sings with almost undiminished clarity and beauty and her range is still miraculously wide -- who also happens to be a great musician. She made the experience of this remarkable work seem to come from deep within her, rather than from without.

Wuorinen has always written terrific music for the piano, and "A Winter's Tale" is no exception. As the composer, who was in the audience last night, noted in the program, this work "is really a duo concertante," and Markham conquered the bravura challenges of the composer's dramatic writing fearlessly.

Singer and pianist were equally adept in the Bergian lyricism of Luigi Dallapiccola's "Four Lyrics of Antonio Machado" and in the searing, almost John Donne-like confabulation of sensuality and spirituality of Olivier Messiaen's "Poems pour Mi."

The wickedly funny sendup of operatic divas that they performed as an encore was "Sarah's Song" by Flanders and Swann of Hoffnung Festival fame.

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