Wyner, Brahms ring true with Lexington Symphony
LEXINGTON—When conductor Jonathan McPhee inquired about having the Lexington Symphony perform Yehudi Wyner’s “Fragments From Antiquity,’’ Wyner used the opportunity to give his 1978-81 song cycle a revision, which McPhee and the Symphony, with soprano Dominique Labelle, premiered on Saturday. It added another temporal point to the work’s variegated web of ancient texts, vintage musical styles, and contemporary technique.
Wyner’s modernist methods reverse-engineer stylistic reminiscence; the main musical reference point is the twilight of Romanticism. The first three movements straddled the concentrated unease of early-20th-century decadence and the tentative fluidity of early atonality; the opening, a setting of “A Night of Spring River and Flower Moon’’ (by the Sui dynasty poet emperor and tyrant Yang Kuang) distilled that crossroads down to a few cryptic chords recalling Schoenberg’s first forays beyond it.
“But it breaks my spirit,’’ a churning setting of Sappho, spiked its Mahleresque mood with appropriate, chamber-style orchestral touches: a rasp of low, muted brass, a mutter of staccato strings. The cycle’s center, “ . . . and the time is passing’’ (another Sapphic text), gathered the stylistic strands into a quieter nocturne, nevertheless still recalling pre-WWI modernism: an aphoristically yearning surface over an unsettled harmonic skeleton.
The last two songs struck out in jazzier directions. “The time of afterdeath,’’ by the Semónides of Amórgos, from the seventh century BC, was all cabaret brittleness, a winking, 1920s au courant danse macabre. Archílochos of Paros’s equally ancient “Here I lie mournful with desire’’ was given hints of bluesy Hollywood sheen. It was as if, having charted Romanticism’s disintegration, Wyner acknowledged its afterdeath as a fragmentary reference point for popular culture.
The vocal writing was in a lyrically angular style that didn’t vary much from song to song. But Labelle gave a sterling performance, maintaining her distinctive bronzed color across steep shifts of range. The orchestra offered vibrant colors along with some nice sardonic swing. As a whole, “Fragments From Antiquity’’ seems purposefully fragmentary, its glosses and quirks diverting and intriguing, always suggesting more than they tell.
McPhee balanced Wyner’s historical juxtapositions with the Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms. The muscular playing was rather rough-edged, but a firm rhythmic grid highlighted Beethovenian qualities — a blockish modularity, a thematic efficiency — that Brahms effortfully but effectively sublimated into his own symphonic personality. More sturdy than subtle, the performance made its own historical connection: that between the composer and his self-imposed burden of influence.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.