Romanticism collided head-on with formalism Saturday night in the National Academy of Sciences--apparently not by accident. The most significant of several collisions involved the world premiere of Ruth Schonthal's melodious, evocative solo cantata, "The Solitary Reaper."
The text of this work (which almost could serve as a manifesto for the rebirth of emotion in new music) is a poem by Wordsworth about the power of music to stir feelings and memories. The poet, wandering through the Hebrides, hears a woman in a distant field: "Alone she cuts and binds the grain,/And sings a melancholy strain." He wonders briefly what she is singing about--long-ago battles or personal sorrows?--and wanders off with a final reflection: "The music in my heart I bore,/Long after it was heard no more." It is a text ideal for music, offering many cues to a composer. Schonthal uses a soprano voice, flute, cello and piano effectively to explore the overtones of the words, with a recurring melody reminiscent of Scottish folk music, a lot of scene-painting by the instruments, and a long, wordless fade-out by the voice at the end.
"The Solitary Reaper" contrasted sharply (and, one suspects, deliberately) with the piece that followed: the setting of Shakespeare's sonnet "Music to hear," composed by Igor Stravinsky late in life, using his own adaptation of Schoenberg's 12-tone system. Unfortunately for Schonthal, her charming composition was not as well-sung as Stravinsky's angular and rather mechanical work--perhaps because it still is unfamiliar or perhaps because soprano Carolyn Heafner's voice did not sound fully warmed up and under control until she reached the Stravinsky.
Other notable contrasts on the program: Max Reger's attractively contrapuntal Serenade for violin, flute and viola against the lush Horn Trio of Brahms (which featured some fine horn-playing by Laurel Bennert Ohlson of the National Symphony); Kurt Weill's almost-atonal "Frauentanze" against three ripely romantic songs by Amy Beach.
The program should have been slightly shorter and some passages might have used a bit more rehearsal. But it is hard to complain about such thoughtful, imaginatively presented music. National Musical Arts--like the New World Players who also give free concerts at the National Academy of Sciences--adds very significantly to the interest and diversity of musical life in Washington.