I just saw a spectacular production of Higglety, Pigglety, Pop with the Tanglewood Fellows and the excellent Stefan Asbury conducting. Higglety is one of Maurice Sendak’s longest texts, still it is by no means loquacious. There is clarity and there is sharpness in his writing, and this book from 1967 is no exception. Oliver Knussen’s opulent score on the other hand, is a virtual paean to excess. The impression I got listening to it is that of a two-year-old child with elemental, alarming ideas by the dozen, but only twenty words that are speakable. Even worse, if you are the hero of Higglety, Pigglety, Pop, you are a dog with very few words. The powerful juxtaposition of lean, straight writing and gorgeous, lavishly orchestrated, abundant music shows a rare sympathy with the child who thinks more wonderfully than he can speak. At first one questions how such grand excess can possibly sort with the few words that Jessie the Dog says in the text. But Mr. Knussen’s music uses the text only as a kind of fundamental ingredient and then builds worlds upon it, vocally and instrumentally. The end of the opera is multivalent, a kind of Mozart overture and finale with nursery rhyme words, even syllables sung in a kind of coordinated chaos. I would love to hear an Alice in Wonderland from Oliver Knussen.
The Tanglewood Fellows really outdid themselves on this one. As Jessie the Dog, Kate Jackman was comprehensive in her assumption of this terrific part. Tenderness, fear, humor, confusion — all were at her command. The sweet roundness of her voice, the completeness of it, was beguiling. Douglas Williams, in a low-lying part, had the vividness he brings to everything he does. How many people can impersonate a pig and make it jump right out at you? Ilana Zarankin, who sang several roles, was asked to make the most extreme use of her voice and did so remarkably, whether cooing or screaming. Tenor Zach Finkelstein made an insinuating and sweet Cat ( he took his chair off stage with an elegant cat-like gesture); Richard Ollarsaba was an imposing Lion. The orchestra played this way-difficult music as if this were the tenth performance, not the first. Much credit is due again to the elegant leadership of Mr. Asbury.
Visually the event was striking. Projected on a large screen above the stage were the very pages from Higglety, Pigglety, Pop. Director Netia Jones had devised a way to make the characters move through the pages and even mouth the words in synch with the singers below. Occasionally one was slightly behind or ahead of the other, and this gave it a fairy-tale poignancy for me, as if we were hearing a thought or an afterthought.
I have wondered since what a child would make of this- I saw few in the audience. You are an adult; you are watching a children’s book come to life (if in fact Sendak’s books are children’s books ),and the music is complex, daunting, occasionally terrifying. It is a work for old children, usually called adults, which if listened to carefully, makes us children again.
I want to also mention a secure and rich performance a few days earlier of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, one of his most difficult works. This was led with his usual panache by Charles Dutoit, and featured four superb Fellows as vocal soloists: Jennifer Taverner, Tammy Coil, James Barbato, and Richard Ollarsaba. The excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang the bulk of the work. Most remarkable about this performance was the ease with which these forces negotiated the extreme technical hurdles the work presents. The solo soprano part alone floats and trumpets high up in the voice for extended periods of time, sometimes almost a kind of musical holler. The musical intricacies throughout are formidable. One thinks with how much more ease this performance must have gone together than the earliest performances Stravinsky would have heard. Earlier, we heard a fluent and fine performance of Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques deftly conducted by Ken-David Masur and superbly played by pianist, Nicholas Namoradze. This is the glory of the Tanglewood Music Center.
Then there was an evening of short Ives pieces conducted by my mentor, Gunther Schuller. Hearing The Unanswered Question played by the Fellows at Tanglewood with Maestro Schuller is about as close to the center of American music as you can get. Working on Wozzeck with him was one of the most difficult and best experiences of my life. He is that ideal teacher who makes you feel your worth by doing two things: demanding your absolute best and being kind about it. Of course he is invaluable to student composers, but his comprehensive knowledge of singing in the late 20th century was like a goldmine. He not only heard these singers, his superb verbal skills made it possible to get a description of what an artist did that had real usable detail. I would have to say that he is one of the most important persons in my musical life. I use daily his principles in my singing and in my teaching.
As always Mr. Schuller’s gestures on the podium are economical and devoted entirely to helping his artists on stage. He taught us to give new music a chance, to work hard on it, that it takes time. I always think of one particular rehearsal working on an extremely difficult piece by Jean Barraque, and catching sight of Michael Steinberg in the back of the concert hall. I asked him later, “Did you like it”? He replied, “No, but I’ll be back tomorrow”. This is the kind of attitude that Gunther Schuller inspires.