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
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.