incident light

SOLI, Timothy Jones

Music fit for a king, and a world, gone mad

May 27, 2009

It was repellent. It was horrific. It was ugly. And it was utterly riveting. One couldn’t take one’s ears or eyes away from baritone Timothy Jones’s fearless traversal of Peter Maxwell Davies’ groundbreaking theater work “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” capstone of the SOLI Chamber Ensemble’s final program of the season, May 26 in Ruth Taylor Recital Hall.

The king in question was England’s George III, who went progressively bonkers starting in 1788 as a result (it has been conjectured) of the intensely painful blood disease porphyria. Randolph Stow’s texts are drawn in part from George’s own words, and Maxwell Davies’s music is based in part on the tunes from a mechanical organ that the king used in an attempt to train bullfinches to sing.

First performed in April 1969, the piece was composed during a period of madness in the world at large. The previous year had brought the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the bloody apex of the Vietnam War, “Prague Spring” and its ensuing winter, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, the high tide of ultimately futile student-led protest movements in Europe and the United States. In the realm of rock music, Jimi Hendrix provided the most appropriate sound track, raw and dissonant, for the world of the late 1960s. Classical music had its Hendrix, too -- in Peter Maxwell Davies.

His “Eight Songs for a Mad King” are not pretty or, in the traditional sense, singable. In an aptly bizarre mix of styles -- older classical and popular material woven with avant-garde grotesquerie -- they portray the king’s insanity, his pain, even his self-awareness, and they put the soloist’s voice through the ringer. He is asked to sing sometimes in high falsetto, sometimes below the bottom of the baritone range. He growls, groans, squeals, snorts, rasps and gasps. Only on occasion is the bel canto voice allowed to shine.

Jones plunged with full force into the extended vocal techniques -- any voice teacher would have been horrified -- but he also could turn on a dime and produce lustrous, resonant, fully secure bel canto singing when that was called for.  (Hear a small sample of Jones’s color spectrum in this brief excerpt from the performance, including the end of the sixth song, “The Counterfeit,” and the beginning of the seventh, “Country Dance.”)

Surrounding Jones was a top-notch instrumental ensemble comprising Allison Garza (flute and piccolo), Stephanie Key (clarinet), Ertan Torgul (violin), David Mollenauer (cello), Carolyn True (piano and electronic harpsichord) and Thomas Burritt (percussion). Conductor and co-director Brett Mitchell, American Conducting Fellow at the Houston Symphony, led the proceedings with skill and conviction. Co-director Buck Ross, of the University of Houston Moores Opera Center, provided intelligently conceived, expertly executed and often magical video projections.

The program opened with a bracing amuse-bouche, Jennifer Higdon’s “Dash,” a protean chase scene for clarinet, violin and piano. The salad, less appetizing, was Michael Torke’s “After the Forest Fire,” a poorly integrated mix of Latin American folk elements with bits of neoclassical and schmaltzy neoRomantic styles, for marimba, flute and cello. This was a rare disappointment from one of America’s most engaging and energizing composers. 

Mike Greenberg