BWW Review: STONES IN THEIR POCKETS at State Opera Studio
Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Sunday 24th November 2019.
Virginia Woolf remarked that a woman who wished to write needed a hundred pounds a year and a room of her own, with a lock and key. Emily Dickinson, self immured in Amherst, had the equivalent. Their personal stories and their themes link the two works that made up the challenging experience, Stones in their Pockets, presented by Catriona Barr and her associate artist, Thomas Webb, in a rare Festival standard musical event at the State Opera Studio in Netley.
The solo song recital is a brave step for any singer. There are no distractions, no costumes, sets, dramatic action or orchestra, just the singer and the associate artist at the piano. There is nowhere to hide.
Let me say, at this point, that I know Catriona Barr. I gave her her first print review of a high school production and, over the last six years, I've shared the stage with her in an operatic entertainment about Mozart and his working relationship with his much-underestimated librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. I thought I knew her voice. On this showing, I didn't know the half of it. This voice is darker in timbre, powerful throughout, with still a shining high register under exquisite control.
Let me say also that writing this account of the experience has taken a week, for the full impact to settle itself. I'm gaining hints for my own epitaph from Emily and an insight into the clash between public prestige and personal uncertainty from the Woolf. She's an author I've never read, and may never. A repeat performance of this program would be most welcome.
Dickinson's many short and often whimsical verses were discovered and published after her death.
The text of the Dominick Argento song cycle is taken from Woolf's posthumously published diaries. Copland's settings of Emily Dickinson are generally shaped like songs, but the extracts from Virginia Woolf's diaries are prose, and each movement of the cycle is, in fact, a brief monodrama, an operatic scene.
Aaron Copland's cycle grew from his setting of The Chariot, which begins "Because I would not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me". As he read more of her 1800 poems, he drew together themes of death and loss, the beauty of the natural world and the return and resurrection of that natural world. They are sensitive, naïve, and expressed in simple language. Some, such as "Why do they shut me out of heaven/Did I sing too loud" and "Dear March, Come in" are whimsical, others touch on death and dying though with a questioning, and not a morbid spirit. If I sometimes think of Leunig, while reading Dickinson, it's the way they both address human experience with the lightest of touch. Copland also provided what Catriona Barr referred to as a palate cleanser encore, his setting of the Shaker song, Simple Gifts. It was very welcome indeed.
The Dominick Argento settings, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, begin in 1919 when Woolf describes what she intends her diary to be "a mass of unexamined odds and ends that will with time make their meaning clear". There are eight songs. Rome, of May 1935, is a vignette of a cafe, which ends with Woolf determined to refuse the offer of the title of Companion of Honour, offered by the Prime Minister. Throughout the other songs, there are constant reminders of her morbid mental state. Her account of Thomas Hardy's funeral, observant of human frailty, includes the lines "Over all this broods, for me, some uneasy sense of change and mortality and how partings are deaths, and then a sense of my own fame and a sense of the futility of it all".
The penultimate song is about her parents. "How beautiful they were, those old people, I mean father and mother" and, here, Argento's spikey and urgent music resolves into a gently lyricism, until her mood changes, with a repeated punchy rhythm in the upper keys, a sign of mental stress.
The impact of the Second World War is made clear in the later songs and, in one of them, War, dated June 1940, she predicts that for her there will be no June 27 in 1941. A year later, after writing about cooking haddock and sausage meat, a testament to wartime rationing, in her final entry, she made that prediction come true. She filled the pockets of her coat with stones as added ballast to her emotional burden and walked to her death, drowning in the River Ouse. That detail gave this recital its overall title.
Thomas Webb expertly communicates the codes of Woolf's emotions in Argento's score; the thundering drums, the high warning notes. He's a Texan by birth, and I can't say if that increases his understanding of the American accents and intonations in the piano writing of these two composers, but it's a really good feeling to know that we have another excellent recital pianist in town.
I was speaking to Thomas Webb after the recital. He and his husband relocated to Adelaide, so he could take up his job as Head Boxing Coach at the Iron Industry Gym in Light Square. I mentioned that I frequently passed by on my way to work. He asked me what would tempt me to drop in? A grand piano and some lieder coaching, I think.
The collaboration between these two impressive musicians came about as a result of an introduction by mutual friends in Willunga. I trust it's the beginning of a long partnership.
The rehearsal studio in Netley is a bit of a barn, and not acoustically ideal for a performance of this intimacy. Adelaide needs a recital room in the CBD, to seat maybe 150 people, something like Ukaria, but not perched above Mount Barker and inaccessible to public transport. Perhaps it could be part of the long-awaited Concert Hall.