Entry begun at the Lenox Club, Sunday, August 2, 4:45 pm
I am back on the porch where I had breakfast. The morning daisies are now backlit by the afternoon sun. As I look over to the field of sunbathing of yellow petals, a couple of black “floaters” from my left eye are floating among them, easily distinguished, however, from the busy bees still paying their respects. A light, gusty breeze just now turned all their heads and cooled the porch on which I’m sitting.
Claire and I made a couple of passes last night at the little road that curves up to the Composer’s Cottage. We did better after we took the right fork in the road. Soon after we parked, Betsy walked over to meet us and lead us to the cottage, about a hundred yards away. You wouldn’t know Betsy was 89 by the way she extended her outstretched arms long before she reached her daughter without a hitch in her stride.
Inside the cottage Betsy treated us to some white wine as she and I renewed our acquaintance from the summer of 2011. Then I had visited Claire at her studio in Chérence on the way back from the Melville Conference in Rome at which Claire had presented a talk on her Whiteness book. Tonight I had expected to have a drink with Betsy and Claire and then have dinner on my own, but Betsy asked me to join them for dinner, which I did with pleasure after our tête á tête over the wine and in anticipation of what we would be hearing tomorrow. If Betsy was nervous about the next day’s performance, she did not show it. She exudes a joyous fearlessness. The Composer’s Cottage has a piano, on which was a tall, substantial score. Betsy invited me to examine it, and, after that, even to take a photo or two for the blog.
I knew her new composition was inspired by Mark Twain’s 44 The Mysterious Stranger, but I did not know its length or the instrumental forces for which it was written. This work is essentially a quintet for harp, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello enhanced by the human voice of the narrator, who makes it in performance a sextet. The narrator is Betsy herself, who has rehearsed that element of the performance with Marzuma Diakun, the conductor, and the instrumentalists in the course of this week.
To adapt Mark Twain’s novelistic text for a chamber piece of reasonable length, Betsy had to write a libretto to which she set the instruments as well as her own voice. The oversize pages of the score were hard for her to follow, and its pages cumbersome to turn, when rehearsing the piece. So she crafted a separate narrator’s score in which she wrote her reading text in quite a small hand, which she said she had no difficulty reading. That is what she would take to the stage the next day for the performance itself. Here is one page of the narrator’s “score” from which she was to read.
Before we left for dinner—we found a nice little Vietnamese restaurant in nearby Lee—I took a photo of Betsy and Claire at the door of the Composer’s Cottage.
I had never been to a concert at Tanglewood. Sunday morning was again sunny and bright as I approached Ozawa Hall. The interior of the hall is very high and deep, without a fourth wall in the back, opening the eye to a green expanse of lawn rising up a hill.
The high deep space of the wall behind the stage was the perfect place for the eleven musicians who opened the program with a brass Fanfare by Robin de Raeff, another commission by the Tanglewood Music Center in honor of its 75th Anniversary. I could not believe the breadth and depth of the sound that burst, bellowed, and floated from those angelic heights.
The opening Fanfare was followed by spirited peformances of Beethoven’s String Quartet in G major (Op. 18, no. 2, 1799) and György Kartág’s Bagatelles for Flute, Double Bass, and Piano (Op. 14a, 1981). For a hall so large and spacious, this one feels surprisingly intimate, with the sound as present and alive as it could possibly be. This was especially the case during Betsy’s Rambles, the next work on the program. She and conductor Marzema Diakun came out on stage after the five young musicians who would play the piece had taken their positions. I did not want to take any photo that would disturb the performance, so the one I post here shows Betsy before she climbed up on the stool from which she would narrate the premiere performance of her homage to Mark Twain.
I only read in the program notes after the concert that Betsy is well known for her use of the human voice as an instrument of its own throughout an instrumental composition. You could easily see, hear, and feel that effect during her Rambles. Sitting on the high stool, feet above the floor, this near-nonagenarian was in no danger of falling off her perch or of missing a single beat. Some of her words had to coincide precisely with an instrumental sound, but others could be said at her ease within a certain stretch of sound. This created the feeling of someone telling us a story in a very intimate setting with a set of musical friends amplifying and enhancing the story as it goes. Sometimes the ensemble mirrored or doubled an image, idea, or sound. Each individual instrument entered into the flow with its own twang and timbre, yet always in a way that the words could be heard.
Betsy’s Rambles unfolds without a break for I would guess about 17 minutes. As we were about five minutes into the performance, I was thinking that the instrumental narrative could stand on its own even without the narrated text—even though a whole world of meaning and pleasure would be lost. I felt so grateful to know this remarkable woman in person as I heard her latest work unfold. The program notes indicate that, among a lifetime of accolades, Betsy had been named “Personality of the Year” for France by SACEM for 1992. That nation has some amazing personalities, but I am not surprised they chose her.
Besides the joyful resourcefulness of the writing for the respective instruments, the most powerful element of the performance, I felt, is that you could hear and understand literally every spoken word of Betsy’s narration. The program notes explain that she prefers the narration over the singing of the words for certain works for exactly that reason: the words can be heard and clearly understood. This was a primary goal for this work and it worked beautifully. Just as the words enriched the sound all the way through, so did the sound the words. Betsy narrated beautifully, but this would have been a rather longish as a performance of the spoken word alone, whereas it flowed right along as instrumentally accompanied speech.
I savored the highly engaging story by Mark Twain. I thought of Melville in a number of ways as it unfolded. The first appearance of the mysterious stranger “44” as a wayfaring youth seemingly without prospects is reminiscent of Bartleby. The way the print shop is organized and the evolving dynamic between 44 and his fellow workers recalls both “Bartleby” and the description of the paper mill in “The Tartarus of Maids.” Perhaps the strongest parallel is the one that develops most slowly, between 44 in his increasingly bizarre and provocative shape-shifting ways and “the confidence man” in Melville’s novel of that name. Like Melville’s confidence man, 44, a representative of Satan, questions and undermines a whole sequence of assumptions about not only life on earth but the afterlife. Shortly before the story’s irregular trajectory ends with the mysterious stranger informing the narrator that life as we know it “is all there is,” I had been expecting that sentiment to somehow prevail.
How, one might ask, can such an ostensibly buoyant personality as Betsy Jolas create such a startlingly “dark” performance piece? Exactly because it is so emphatically a story, a story to be enjoyed, a story whose performance genre is the melodrama of spoken text with instruments that inspired so many 19th-century composers, but not often with what today are considered major works.
Betsy and Claire were in a box before the performance. I sat about five rows in from the stage with Frank and Rhonda Gelbwasser, who had arrived much earlier and claimed these excellent seats. In the row just behind us was Marsha from the Dickinson house yesterday with local family and friends. Betsy’s piece was right before intermission. The whole hall had been extremely attentive during her Rambles, and she and the musicians had all been called back out on stage.
At intermission Frank and Rhonda and I met up with John and Cran Campbell, who had arrived just in time and were sitting halfway back in the hall. We all shared our immediate perceptions of the performance while Betsy and her daughter were meeting with well wishers and those who had sponsored the music or orchestrated her residency. We did get Claire away for one photo with our little party from NKU in February.
Claire and Betsy were invited to an impromptu luncheon followed by an afternoon concert, so we arranged that I would pick up Claire for dinner at a reception to be held at the “Koussevitzky house” up the hill from the Composer’s Cabin. Betsy was planning to stay on at the reception, where she would reunite with two of the soloists in the afternoon concert, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and trumpeter Häkan Hardenberger, who was preparing to perform one of her compositions in a future concert.
I had not expected to see Betsy again until the next day, but when we sat down for the second half of the morning concert in Ozawa Hall she was out on stage again, this time with composer Robin de Raeff, as each was interviewed about previous experiences at Tanglewood and the commissioned pieces we had just heard. Betsy was alert and articulate as always, and could have told stories for hours. The one she chose to share is one she had related to Claire and me last night, about the time Leonard Bernstein had picked her up as a hitchhiker on a nearby road. He had said, somewhat nervously, “I don’t do this very often.” To which she said, “Neither do I.”
After hearing the second half of the concert, which lasted until after 1 pm, I had lunch at at Electra’s Café, near the turn off to Melville’s house in Pittsfield. Electra’s was closing at 2, so I found a café with good coffee in Pittsfield at which I could write some of this entry. I am finishing this entry on the porch at the Lenox Club, where Claire called to let me know that she and her mother had left the reception and that Betsy was now free to join us for dinner at Chez Nous in Lee.
Continuing entry at Lenox Club, Monday, August 3, 8:20 am
Frank Gelbwasser had recommended Chez Nous for last night’s dinner and it was, as I expected, absolutely perfect. Once we got there. I had arranged to meet Claire and Betsy at the Composer’s Cottage at 6:10, which left ample time for the drive over to Lee. Except when I got to West Street to turn right toward Tanglewood both lanes of traffic were surging against me into Lenox. Some huge concert at Tanglewood had let out (it must have been the one with Yo-Yo Ma) and when that happens they apparently turn this two-way two-lane road into two lanes one way for as long as it takes. It took forever—an absolutely steady stream of cars, vans, and buses streaming from my right to my left. Fortunately, I had my cell phone and could call Frank, encouraging him and Rhonda, along with John and Cran Campbell, to go ahead with appetizers until the traffic cleared and I could arrive with Claire and Betsy. Fortunately, too, Claire and I had coordinated our cell phone numbers, so I was able to call her and let her know I would be late for her and Betsy. The traffic finally cleared, everything was fine, and were were only about twenty minutes late. It was worth the wait.
The food, the drink, the appetizers, the desserts—all were exquisite and served with ease. But it was the talk I treasured most, shared around and across the table with an ease and a tang matching those of the service and the food. If Betsy’s Rambles was a music sextet for voice and five instruments, our table talk was a vocal septet with all voices making timely entrances while also contributing to the ensemble. We were delighted to hear that Frank and Rhonda’s daughter, my friend Kimberly, will be teaching and singing next year at a Salzburg.
From the Campbells we had story after story about the family island in the Adirondacks where John and Cran had recently been camping. During Calvin Coolidge’s presidency, the nearby White Pine Camp had been his summer White House, where he enjoyed hearing Enrico Caruso’s voice from out on the lake.
Betsy (with a little prompting from me) shared some details about the late-blooming burst of high-profile engagements she’s had recently—the Prom concerts in London a few weeks ago, the Tanglewood premiere today, a new commission from the Berlin Philharmonic now in hand. Claire shared her impressions of our visit to Amherst, saying she particularly enjoyed the Evergreens because it preserved the feeling of a lived-in space from the 19th century, still filled with the “juice” of that era (as the French like to say).
When the desserts came, mine had a single candle and “Happy Birthday” written in chocolat. This was a gift from Frank and Rhonda, orchestrators of this wonderful evening. I made a wish and blew out the single candle, which I took as symbolizing the first year of my life after seventy. As we left Chez Nous after this highly enjoyable evening, we all looked forward to seeing each other the next day, when Claire would be presenting her Whiteness book at Arrowhead.