“The Beginning and the End”

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Earlier this summer, I was in Athens with Joyce DiDonato and the orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro as part of their EDEN tour—an ambitious multi-year program that will see the musicians perform on six continents and offer a host of workshops for local children’s choirs. While DiDonato and I shared a 30-minute taxi ride from Schisto refugee camp back into the city center after an afternoon of music workshops, I’d gotten more bonding time with the handful of musicians from Pomo d’Oro who joined for the outing. (Once a band kid, forever a band kid.) 

Watching the seven musicians jump into a preschool-age music class, I got an up-close look at the overall ensemble’s collective sense of play that seems like a birthright. (Taken from the name of an opera by Antonio Cesti, “pomo d’oro” is both Italian for “golden apple” and a reconfiguration of the word for tomato, “pomodoro.” The premiere of Cesti’s work also happened to involve 73,000 rockets and a 1,200-hoof-strong horse ballet.) One of the simple songs that the children sang at the beginning and end of their lesson became a leitmotiv for the rest of the afternoon among the orchestra members, who picked it up quickly on their violins, violas, and cello and batted it around like a tennis ball at random intervals, developing variations on the theme. It was a bit like the scene in “Amadeus” where Salieri composes a welcome march for Mozart’s arrival to the Viennese court and Mozart, after just one hearing (played in a hackneyed, blundering manner by Emperor Joseph II), not only replicates it from memory, but improvises on its simple tune, ultimately creating the “Nozze di Figaro” aria, “Non più andrai.”

No huge surprise, then, that Il Pomo d’Oro’s chief conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev, is a Mozart fan. It’s also a mark of the ensemble’s keen programming outside of the EDEN tour that the first of a multi-album survey of the composer’s complete symphonies would be called “The Beginning and the End,” juxtaposing Symphony No. 1 (K. 16) with Symphony No. 41 (K. 551). A close colleague of Teodor Currentzis, Emelyanychev brings a similar spirit to Mozart’s symphonies (as well as his piano concerti—here, No. 23 serves as a luxury interlude between the two main events). 

The pace of the First is crisp, its opening movement popping out like a cork, but inside the bottle is a funky pet nat in lieu of a Perrier-Jouët. Emelyanychev and Pomo d’Oro pick up a thread from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields a few decades earlier; the thread of a leaner Mozartean style compared to that of the previous generation of orchestras and conductors. Try listening to just the first few bars of the First Symphony on this recording next to both Marriner and the Academy’s 1972 recording and one by Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic from 1968. Even more potent, compare the first movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony between Pomo d’Oro and the Academy. There’s nothing casual about Pomo d’Oro’s approach, but this recording elicits that same sense of play I saw among its musicians in June. 

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“Soaked in Color: From Purcell to Queen”

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Much in the way that there ought to be a word jail for classical music, there should also be a song jail for classical musicians. I never need to hear anyone do “Somewhere over the Rainbow” again (sorry, Joyce). Same goes for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Though Joel Frederiksen and Anna Prohaska both made a case for this number, too often classical singers perform pop in a vacuum. They either try too hard to be hip among their fellow kids, or they attempt to “elevate” a Top 40 hit into something it’s not. Either way, the net effect leaves you sympathizing with Carrie’s mother on prom night, because you really want to take the singer by the shoulders and shout “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” 

Admittedly, I didn’t need to hear Isabel Pfefferkorn sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” or (even more bafflingly) “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s “Pocahontas” on her debut solo album. That said, I can’t stop listening to her cover of the Britney Spears hit “Toxic.” Pfefferkorn and cellists Anton Mecht Spronk, Paul Handschke, Payam Taghadossi, and Zoltán Despond strip away the song’s signature Bollywood-sampled violin hook, instead introducing it with a plodding bassline that calls to mind the opening of “Winterreise”’s “Auf dem Flusse.” As Schubert’s winter-wanderer recognizes the reflection of her heart—hardened over, but with a torrent roaring underneath—in that of the frozen-over brook, the narrator of Spears’s hit likewise seems paralyzed by an addictive infatuation. It calls to mind the numbing use of the song in 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” and the operatic parallels to Spears’s own media narrative in a way that I’m not sure Pfefferkorn fully intended, but nevertheless delivers. 


Pfefferkorn croons “Toxic” in a velvety chest voice, but also unfurls her classical training on “Soaked in Color” with a truly chilling “Cold Song” from Purcell’s “King Arthur” (especially in the cello lines) and—aptly—“Auf dem Flusse.” While her intent was to program a synesthetic journey through song, I found the stronger elements here to be in these unlikely pairings, clearly orchestrated to bring out their similarities. It reminded me of the fun in Anthony Roth Costanzo and Justin Vivian Bond pairing The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” with the “Hymn to the Sun” from Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” but on a deeper level of feeling. Perhaps that could be the starting-off point for Pfefferkorn’s next recording. 


I wonder if there’s a parallel between how much thought and intent is put into an Eliot-inspired work of music and its overall listenability. When Hal Prince first heard the score of a new work by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, he wondered if the whole thing was a metaphor for Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, and a vaguely Marxist class consciousness. Webber fixed him with a long stare before responding, drily, “Hal, it’s about cats.” 

They never discussed the matter again, according to Prince. Correspondingly, I never need to hear a note of “Cats” again. By contrast, “STILLPOINT,” a sextet of Eliot-inspired new commissions recorded by pianist Awadagin Pratt, is an album designed to be relistened to with Talmudic fervor. The foundational text comes from “Burnt Norton,” the first of the poet’s Four Quartets:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, 
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, 
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, 
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, 
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Pratt cites in these lines “an understanding of a duality that can exist in life, the struggle for balance, and an acknowledgement of the inexpressible,” adding that “there is so much life in these thoughts” that it became imperative (even when the Eliot estate temporarily got cold feet) to make this the focus of a larger commissioning project that brought together Jessie Montgomery, Paola Prestini, Alvin Singleton, Pēteris Vasks, Tyshawn Sorey, and Judd Greenstein, as well as the ensembles Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry. 

With six distinct musical voices, the works still fit together like a mathematical equation, individual values that form their own sum. Montgomery’s “Rounds” is a machine of perpetual motion in the vein of Ravel’s pizzicato String Quartet, with fluid, at times Beethovenian piano lines that swoop and dive in birdlike patterns (perhaps no coincidence that Beethoven himself was one of the inspirations for Four Quartets). The bird imagery echoes more explicitly in Prestini’s “Code,” inspired by the love between Eliot and Emily Hale, who exchanged over 1,100 letters over the course of 17 years. Prestini delves into the still point of Eliot and Hale’s turning world, one that was—as more than a thousand letters would suggest—full of complexities and contradictory chasms, a love rendered in words representing both the flesh and the fleshless. 

Yet, as rich as “STILLPOINT” is with Eliotisms as well as the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the album’s six composers, it’s Pratt’s performance that elevates each of these pieces to a realm of obsessive re-listening. Playing with a naturalism that at times leaves the piano lines sounding spontaneous, inevitable responses in a musical conversation, we hear both the life in Eliot’s thoughts and in Pratt’s artistry. He softly treads through the contemplations of Vasks’s piano solo, “Castillo Interior,” as if not to spook the thoughts that have settled. At times the piano springs to life with illumination, contemplation leading to epiphany. Briefly, Pratt lights upon the still point of the turning world, and brings us in for a closer look. ¶

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