What is it about music, that wordless art form that is beyond language and logic, that moves us? Why does “Rhapsody in Blue” instantly liven up your day, while Beethoven’s “Emperor Suite” causes almost painful nostalgia? And what could its connection be with poetry, another form of expression that is intensely personal and profound? Artbreak: Strings and Sonnets, a performance at the Johnson Museum that premiered this past Sunday, attempted to answer these questions through both poetry and music.
Though the musical performance was powerful, it was rather baffling as to how it was connected to the poetry, which ranged from the competent to the contrived.
However, Artbreak’s most significant shortcoming was the choice of venue. The Hirsh Lecture Lobby is perfectly suited to small class lectures, but it proves to be rather uncomfortable when filled with 26 string players, 15 poets and 50 to 60 audience members. A larger room would have not only provided all spectators with a seat, but would also have allowed the string players to perform without worrying about elbowing their fellow players in the eye.
It takes courage to perform in front of an audience, courage that can easily warp into anxiety when the audience members spend more time glaring at whoever last left the room rather than focusing on the performance. Another setback was the inadequate sound system; it was hard to comment on the poetry itself, as much of it was inaudible, but the quality seemed to vary widely. Many seemed to have to do with music or sound only superficially, preferring to deal with other subjects such as nature or war. Sounds were briefly mentioned in metaphors and similes, but never were dealt with as subject matter. Clearly, it is unfair to dictate what poets should write about … unless they are meant to read their poetry at an event that was meant to the relationship between poetry and music. The majority of the poems were good, if not great; none really shone either in terms of lyric mastery. One or two seemed to heavily rely on shock value, leading to disconcerted laughter within the audience. Expected performance behavior was a far cry from reality: poetry that was meant to reveal the link between two forms of self-expression merely revealed in itself in some cases, and disgusted and offended in others.
But where the poetry was unsuccessful, the music rose to the occasion. While it was difficult to hear the readings, the Cornell Chamber Orchestra’s sound seemed barely contained by the four walls. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Octet in E-flat Major” was exhilarating in its exhausting energy that would suddenly dissipate into a melancholic largo. The sweet arpeggiated tune morphed from an invigorated sound of joy to the most heartbreaking sob from the first violin. The acoustics in the room, however, were unsuited to the highly technical sixteenth-note passages that became a slurry mush in the small space. However, Vivaldi’s “Spring” section from his well-known “Four Seasons” was still as lovely as ever, with its cheery, sunshine-filled opening movement, the rain-drenched “Largo” and the lush and moody “Allegro Pastoral.” The balance between the soloist and the violinists could have been better in the “Largo,” but overall the performance was thoroughly enjoyable. However, Astor Piazzolla’s “Primavere Portena,” a Latinized take on Vivaldi’s work, received quite a lot of applause, and rightly so. The passionate performance from every single one of the players rendered a wonderful piece absolutely magical.
In the end, perhaps passion is what connects music and poetry. Or perhaps it is their inherently personal and introspective nature. Or maybe one has to delve into songs to solve this riddle, as they can be seen as the marriage between music and poetry.