Sept. 14, SITE Santa Fe
Madness was in the air at the Railyard on Saturday morning, Sept. 14, when produce-crazed shoppers wrangled their way to favorite Farmers’ Market vendor stalls on one side of Paseo de Peralta and the musical ensemble Chatter performed Eight Songs for a Mad King at SITE Santa Fe on the other.
The mad king was George III of England, who suffered debilitating bouts of manic behavior and delusion in his later years, and the eight songs came from a miniature mechanical organ the music-loving monarch used in a vain attempt to train his pet finches to perform the tunes.
Composer Peter Maxwell Davies and librettist Randolph Stow used this real-life saga as the basis for their revolutionary 30-minute monodrama that scandalized audiences and critics at its 1969 premiere. The score was (and still is) fiendishly difficult to perform, especially in its use of extended vocal techniques — shouts, screams, growls, howls, multiphonics (producing several notes simultaneously), whispers, and extremes of range (here spanning almost five octaves when two are typically considered a stretch). “I had never written anything like this before; it was absolutely crackers,” the composer later recalled.
Chatter’s presentation was an impressive achievement overall. Baritone Michael Hix gave an intense and completely committed performance as the mad king and the six-member instrumental ensemble generated a sonic palette that ranged from beguiling to appropriately horrifying. It was staged in one of the venue’s galleries, with a small playing area between the instrumentalists and the audience. Hix made effective use of the close relationship, roaming the aisles and directly addressing attendeesat some appropriate moments as if they were his royal subjects.
As staged by Tara Khozein, the beginning suggested that Hix was a performer arriving to portray the mad king. He’s wearing ordinary pants and a nondescript muslin shirt, and carrying a bag with makeup he applies to his face. This set up an intriguing twist at the end when we found out that he might in fact have been George III all along.
Hix’s diction was excellent throughout, and he achieved a nice sense of visualizing the country landscape in the second song, “The Country Walk,” which begins benignly (“Dear land of sheep and cabbages”) but then quickly turns grotesque (“Strangling ivy, green snakes of ivy, pythons …”).
At one level, the violin, cello, flute, and clarinet are the birds the king is trying to train, giving him an opportunity for “dialogues” with the individual players. In the third song, “The Lady-in-Waiting,” Hix exerted his charm on flutist Esther Fredrickson, whom he believes to be a well-bred young lady; the fourth, “To Be Sung on the Water,” offered echoes of Handel’s Water Music, along with sharing a bottle of wine with the appreciative cellist James Holland.
Khozein’s directorial concept emphasized the aspects of humor and charm, most of which were effective contrasts in a piece that can seem unrelentingly gloomy. However, there was a considerable misfire in the climactic seventh song, “Country Dance,” in which the king’s mounting anger led to a confrontation with violinist David Felberg that should have been emotionally shattering, but here was mildly comic. As a result, the final scene, in which the king announces his own longed-for death, then realizes that he is still alive and doomed to further bouts of madness, also lost some of its impact.
No two performances of Eight Songs for a Mad King are alike, because more than half of the score has improvised aspects. In these sections, Davies gives the instrumentalists the melodies to be played but specifies that they should not be synchronized, a kind of musical dis-integration that reflects the king’s fragmenting mind.
While the playing was strong throughout, Jeff Cornelius deserves special recognition as the one-man percussion band who juggled a train whistle, snare drum, suspended cymbals, foot cymbal, woodblocks, bass drum, chains, ratchet, tom-toms, gong, tambourine, rototoms, toy birdcalls, temple blocks, wind chimes, small tuned cymbals, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, and steel bars.
Chatter’s hour-long concerts are mostly music, but they also include a spoken-word segment of about 10 minutes, usually given by an area author, and a two-minute “Celebration of Silence.” This one opened with a Handel violin sonata that was stylishly played by Felberg, Holland, and harpsichordist Luke Gullickson, after which poet Barbara Rockman read from her recently published collection to cleave. This unique format is a welcome addition to Santa Fe’s busy music scene.
Chatter’s next SITE Santa Fe concert is at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, with soprano Ingela Onstad featured on a program of music by James Tenney, Shirish Korde, and Joseph Schwantner. Tickets are $16, with discounts available for students and those younger than 30. Info at chatterabq.org.