Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Folksongs Reimagined for the New Year

Duo Apollon: Aaron Haas and Anastasia Malliaras.


Duo Apollon, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

This review could equally well be entitled “New Sounds for a New Year,” as it would be difficult to imagine timbres fresher or brighter than those of Duo Apollon: soprano Anastasia Malliaras and guitarist Aaron Haas seated side-by-side to deliver 2020’s initial lunchtime First Fridays at First!–fff recital. This was the first voice/guitar concert I’d encountered since starting to review South Bay concerts and additionally, their opening item really was new, being a premiere public performance.

Jordan Nelson.
The composer, Jordan Nelson (whose “day job” is chair of the Department of Music Theory and Ear Training at Colburn Conservatory), gave me some background: “Duo Apollon approached me last spring about writing something specifically for a project of theirs focusing on folk songs. I decided to write my own versions of three different songs all of which are sea shanties: ‘Across the Western Ocean’, ‘Drunken Sailor’, and ‘Shenandoah.’ In ‘Shenandoah’ I wanted to avoid over-complexity in terms of what I asked Aaron to do while Anastasia delivered the well-known tune. Indeed, I decided to keep the tune almost entirely intact. I wanted 'Shenandoah' to have a very clear shape, especially in terms of its sense of growth and climactic arrival.”

Anyone used to beefy, baritonal, backwoodsy performances of this familiar American folksong (anyone else remember Robert Horton's sonorous version of Shenandoah?), would have had quite a shock encountering Mr. Jordan’s setting. Underpinned only by hesitant, isolated notes on the guitar, Ms. Malliaras keened the melody so slowly that its shape was initially masked, the focused purity of her voice giving it a softly mournful, musing quality that carried no hint of the usual heroic striving. Only with the second stanza, ringing out thrillingly, did that “very clear shape” reveal itself.

The freshness of her voice and Mr. Haas’s discreet playing served well the remainder of the “reimagined” folksongs on the program: three each of Greek reworked by a French composer, English by an Englishman, and French refracted through the sensibilities of a Hungarian expatriate living and working in Britain for the latter half of his life.

Benjamin Britten in 1954.
From Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques they performed #1, Chanson de la Mariée, #2 La bas, and #5 Tout gai!, in all of which the ostinati and arpeggios of Ravel’s piano writing translated painlessly to the guitar.

The sixth volume of Benjamin Britten’s collected Folksong Arrangements is of English songs arranged for soprano and guitar, so no transcription was needed here. The haunting strains of I will give my love an apple were abruptly shattered by the aggressive strumming and dramatic declamation of The shooting of his Dear, which in turn contrasted with the jaunty Sailor boy.

Mátyás Seiber.
To experience the full expressive range of the now rarely-performed Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960)—generally deemed to qualify as a British composer due to his residence in London from 1935 onwards—try his gauntly imposing, post-war Joyce cantata Ulysses, but for a less forbidding, indeed smiling introduction to his work, you couldn’t do better than his Four French Folk Songs for high voice and guitar. Ms. Malliaras and Mr. Haas performed the lullaby-like #1 Réveillez-vous, the dreamy berceuse of #3 Le rossignol, serenading the eponymous avian (this song not announced on the original program), and finally the brief and dramatic #4 Marguerite, elle est malade.

For me, it somehow didn’t quite fit comfortably—after this international collection of mini-sagas of joy, passion, and loss—to conclude with the familiar pieties of Schubert’s Ave Maria, though I suppose its original status as Ellens Gesang III (Hymne an die Jungfrau) D 839, one of Schubert’s Sieben Gesänge aus Walter Scotts "Fräulein am See" (The Lady of the Lake) Op. 52, puts it within shouting distance of folksong territory.

Manuel de Falla.
Duo Apollon’s real encore returned firmly to ethnic sources transcribed, Spanish this time, with the first of Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, entitled El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth). Ms. Malliaras was as much at home with its flamenco passions as with everything else on the program, and Falla’s original piano accompaniment perfectly adapted to Mr. Haas’s guitar.

The whole recital was an ideal aural palette cleanser after the holiday season. Upcoming 2020 concerts in Classical Crossroads' First Fridays at First!–fff and The Interludes series are listed in the feature "Looking Ahead in the South Bay", also on LA Opus.


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 3, 2020. Images: The performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Jordan Nelson: Dale Trumbore; Britten: Yousuf Karsh; Seiber: Zeneakadémie; Falla: Wikimedia Commons.

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