Some followers of the committedly highbrow Theater Chamber Players must have experienced jolts to their systems when they witnessed a production of something called "Edgar and Emily" at the weekend's two concerts.
It is the product of the currently obscure Ernst Toch, a Viennese experimental figure who took a heavily ideological view of music in his early days and produced something that might be thought of as Bauhaus music. Then, with the arrival of the Nazis, he fled to this country and eventually landed in California, shirking ideology and, like several colleagues, made a generous living writing film music. Wayne Shirley writes in the program that Toch's "left-of-Korngold style typecast him as a horror film composer."
"Edgar and Emily," which lasts only 15 minutes, is about opera (the heroine's aspirations in that direction) but it is, in fact, just a one-singer skit, and a funny one. The framework is a semi-abstract Pirandellian conceit, but in this version, the tone is closer to Archie and Edith than to the rarefied 1928 musical esthetics of central Europe, whence it came.
Emily (sung by Phyllis Bryn-Julson), you see, is In Search of Play, which she sings about with great abandon as we find her, in droll coloratura caricature, pacing around her elegant chamber (furnished in pale blue French decor), proclaiming to the point of distraction that she is "so happy" when any fool can perceive misery sweating through her pores.
Then Edgar (performed by George Shirley) has the misfortune to arrive on the scene, and Emily's ambitions become increasingly angry demands to his deaf ears (he never sings a note). The coloratura parody descends to what seems a direct parody of "Salome," a character who experiences similar problems communicating with John the Baptist (complete with obvious similarities of phrasing, and a pedal point in Leon Fleisher's fine wind orchestra). Emily finally goes into hysterics, beating the wall, and exits. Then Edgar steps forward and orates about "how I want to be left alone" (meaning the audience as well).
Sound slender? You bet. But, on Edith Bunker terms, it has an appeal when performed by so gifted a comedian as Bryn-Julson. When she turns on her phony smile, it is not too overstated, and she has a flair for body English closer to Carol Burnett than most eminent singers would dare try. So what "Edgar and Emily" turns out to be is a vehicle, with a very tough vocal line, just right for this performer.
Toch's pastiche was bracketed on the program by Prokofiev's Quintet, Op. 39, and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. The former is a dry, clipped product of his brief Paris years, finding him trying hard to sound Parisian; the effect is one of cleverness occasionally tainted by aridity. The Mozart was played in memory of flutist Marcel Moyse, who died last week at 95, and taught many members of this ensemble at Marlboro. The performance, with the National Symphony's Loren Kitt playing the clarinet, balanced the work's purity of line with its profundity of utterance in a manner that isn't often encountered.