Fanfare Review

MARA GIBSON Galatea’s Dream, Escher Keys, Lullaby • Rachel Harris, dir; Megan Ihnen (mez); Kimberly Sparr (va); Darrel Hale (bn); Alan Theisen (sax); Scott Terrell, cond; Three Worlds CO; Pangea Pn Project • MARA GIBSON no catalog number (Streaming video: 49:00) Streaming video

The COVID lockdown motivated many performers to turn to live video presentations on YouTube, where you can find two very different works, both strikingly imaginative, by composer Mara Gibson. Not many composers have an unbounded reach, but Gibson seems to. Holding an undergraduate degree from Bennington, a Ph.D. from SUNY, and a background of studying music in London and Fontainebleau, France, she is intellectually and musically equipped for anything. Here she gives us a staged song cycle, a form I’ve never seen before (although Joyce DiDonato sang Schubert’s Winterreise in Carnegie Hall as a kind of one-woman theater piece). Equally surprising is Gibson’s take on the optical illusions of M. C. Escher, which her imagination has turned, completely unexpectedly, into a bassoon concerto that dives into eerie dimensions of sound.

Both works stretch the audiences’ mind, which aligns Gibson with one strand of the avant-garde, in its role as boundary breaker, but her style isn’t defiant, shocking, or based on a manifesto. These two works invite the audience to get involved, which happens in Galatea’s Dream through the singer—the exceptional mezzo Megan Ihnen—who is also a narrator pulling us into her dreams, fears, and fantasies. The ingenious staging by Rachel Harris is worth detailing: Visualize a bare, brightly lit stage with three musicians sitting with their backs to us, amid a few domestic-looking tables, chairs, and what-nots. Ihnen is the riveting presence who draws out attention through her ability to range across tonality and atonality as easily as breathing.

Ihnen, an avid specialist in contemporary music, sings and narrates three poems, and for each an instrumental soloist turns around, on viola, bassoon, and saxophone, to deliver obbligato commentary. The settings of verse by Hannah Ensor and Morgan Frank are focused on the feminine in quite different ways: “One Voice” muses on breathing exercises, “White Ash” depicts a mother telling a bedtime story to get her baby to sleep, and “The Clockmaker’s Doll” portrays the kind of fanciful automaton music-lovers will recognize from Olympia in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, and the wind-up ballerina Coppelia in Delibes’s ballet.

But each song gains its haunting presence through an existential twist. The breathing exercises morph into a soliloquy on breath when it becomes anxious and desperate; the mother rocking her baby to sleep has a suppressed memory of gun violence (an averted murder? suicide?), and the story of the automaton is based on the legend of a clockmaker who turned the corpse of his dead five-year-old daughter into a mechanical doll, only to throw it into the North Sea when he realized that it had no soul (the man is named Descartes, but it isn’t made clear whether he is the French philosophe). A chilling atmosphere hangs over the performance, and Gibson’s music abstractly engages the three narratives, accentuating their mood of existential isolation, as felt by women.

To call Escher Keys a bassoon concerto is barely to begin unfolding its intricate context. A thousand college walls in the 1970s were decorated with Escher’s famous staircases that simultaneously seem to go up and down. Gibson begins with an elaborated version of the same theme, a lithograph titled “Ascending and Descending,” which is populated by monks treading the stairs. Gibson’s program notes on the theme of “double meanings and contradictions” extend far beyond the cleverness of Escher’s optical tricks. She has a bent for synesthesia (the merging of one sense with another, as when we call red a hot color or tangerine a loud one).

Gibson meditates on three other images that expose our naïve trust in what our senses tell us: a fish staring up at us from a reflecting pond (“Three Worlds”), a cross-woven flock of white birds heading in one direction while black birds head in the opposite direction, while making it impossible to see both at once (“Day and Night”), and a waterfall tumbling into a river that flows upstream and downstream at the same time (“Waterfall”). She transforms these surreal perceptions into music rich in color and timbral effects.

It frustrates me to reread that last sentence because it says nothing about the musical fascination in a bassoon concerto (of all things) that is the product of a virtuosic intellect and played in equally virtuosic fashion by soloist Darrel Hale. The bassoon wails, whines, buzzes, flutters, and groans, things you don’t associate with an instrument that is usually either jolly or doleful. A large ensemble, the Three Worlds Chamber Orchestra, expertly conducted by Scott Terrell, elicits a magical trove of instrumental colors. Unintentionally perhaps, the eerie side of Escher’s imaginary concoctions dominates the soundscape, to my ears at least, accentuated because everyone on screen wears black masks for the pandemic.

The musicians we see are associated with Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and one has to admire how talented they are, along with the professionalism of the staging and videography. The two main works are separated by a brief intermission, during which a miniature for duo pianists, Lullaby, offers a gentle respite. An online link provides program notes, texts (also given as subtitles), and Escher’s prints.

Gibson’s music doesn’t overtly refer to the COVID crisis, but her deeply conceived musical creations mirror loneliness and the artist’s antidote for despair, which is beauty in words and music. Something profound about the human condition troubles and inspires Gibson, and everyday words like “time,” “space,” and “breath” acquire metaphysical overtones. What she has accomplished, especially in Galatea’s Dream, is equal to Britten’s songs set to the sonnets of John Donne. Beyond the limits of spacetime, something invisible hovers, and it is up to us to name it as terrifying or divine.

FANFARE: Huntley Dent

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