You've been dumped. Now what? In Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), the crushed, sensitive gentleman caller—let's call him Wilhelm, after Wilhelm Muller, who wrote the poetry—goes wandering through the frozen countryside. Everything that catches his thoughts or his eye—ice on the river, his tears turning to ice on his cheeks, a will-o'-the-wisp, a circling raven ... everything recalls his disappointment, pulling him into deeper and deeper despair. In Maury Yeston's December Songs, a similarly circumstanced woman of our own time—let's call her Charlotte, after the lovelorn heroine of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther—follows a similar course through a more urban setting. brooding on loss.
December Songs received its premiere during Carnegie Hall's centennial season, in 1991, introduced by the self-styled torch singer Andrea Marcovicci and her keyboard partner Glenn Mehrbach. To mark the milestone, the Big Apple's historic bastion of the musical arts had commissioned a dozen-plus new works across the spectrum of genres cultivated there, to be premiered by a roster of regulars. Marcovicci, a cabaret star at the height of her vogue, was a newish face at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, and a glamorous one. Yeston—a polymath, composer without borders, and Yale musicology professor then best known in popular culture for the Tony Award-winning music and lyrics of Nine and Grand Hotel (with Titanicand Death Takes a Holiday to follow) came up with just the vehicle for that artist in that setting: a contemporary, cabaret-style song cycle patterned on the Everest of the Romantic lied repertoire. "For the premiere," The New York Times reported, "Weill Recital Hall [the upper-story jewel box that is Carnegie Hall's second stage] was packed with Broadway and nightclub luminaries, who gave [December Songs] a thunderous ovation."
If December Songs is new to you, know first of all that the parallels to Schubert go only so far. For one thing, the newer work is much shorter. If the two dozen songs of Winterreise clock in at roughly 70 minutes, December Songs takes just ten songs and about half that time to run its course. For another, except at one especially telling juncture, Charlotte's patches of deep-dyed melancholia register many shades less bleak than Wilhelm's spiritual exhaustion. She seems to be "working through" her crisis, as therapists like to say, while he just keeps losing ground. Her journey has its· share of bright spots, as his does not.
Equally important, while Winterreise prefigures much of December Songs, the correspondences, where they do exist, can be more or less elusive. Consider, for instance, how Wilhelm's numinous but ominous image of three suns hanging in the twilight morphs into Charlotte's cheerful, even ebullient fantasy of two untethered orange moons (rhymes with "a pair of contented balloons"). Or watch what comes of Schubert's final vignette, "Der Leiermann," in which Wilhelm fixates on a barefoot wraith of a beggarman grinding his out-of-tune hurdy-gurdy on the edge of the void. Yeston's "Bookseller in the Rain" mimics the hurdy-gurdy's spectral timbre to paint a scene softened by the nostalgia of a person who loves to curl up with a good novel. In "Der Lindenbaum," Wilhelm recalls the tree that spreads its canopy by the gate of a town in the countryside. The leaves are rustling, and in that rustling, Wilhelm hears the murmur of voices calling him to come to rest (for good) among the branches. In "By the River," Charlotte experiences the same temptation, lured to self-slaughter by the demonic voice of a rushing river.
Three decades on, at Yeston's request, the orchestrator Larry Hochman has amped up December Songs to symphonic dimensions appropriate to the Carnegie Hall mainstage, Stern Auditorium, itself. This premiere recording trades the concert grand's 88 keys for a luxurious unplugged instrumental ensemble of 37. In pitch-perfect casting, the vocalist this time is Victoria Clark, originator of the roles of Alice Beane in Titanicand Margaret Johnson, which won her a Tony Award, in Adam Guettel's genre-defying The Light in the Piazza. Ted Sperling, the music director for that show, conducts.
From the moment Clark signed on for the album, she began examining the material not as a voice for hire but as a fully invested singing actress, out to make the role as much her own as her kaleidoscopically nuanced Margaret Johnson. After months of intense preparation, she laid down "scratch" vocals with piano, documenting her interpretive choices song by song, moment by moment.
That working tape, no less than Yeston's original piano score, would guide Hochman
in charting the peaks and valleys and ambience and cinematography of Charlotte's
journey. Would the huge emotional arc she traces in the monologue "I Am Longing" be sustainable without all the symphonic fuel? On the recording, Clark opens sotto voce, tentatively, conveying thoughts as they take shape in Charlotte's head. Next, fragile,
innocent, hopeful, and a touch naïve, Clark speaks her need out loud. When the world ignores her, she tries again, her voice raw with rage (this isn't pretty). Then, all passion drains.
Two other songs mentioned above are likewise raised to a higher power: "By the River," ravishing and lethal; and "Bookseller in the Rain," lifting off from the drizzle of the sidewalk to castles that shimmer in the clouds, only to melt in thin air. Again and again, the stirrings of the heart a chanteuse shares with us close up, as intimate confidences, are scaled to the dimensions of grand opera—still personal but flung out to the world, larger than life. Try matching that with just the piano behind you!
As tailored to Clark's interpretation, Hochman's orchestration of the finale, "What a Relief," manages something even more remarkable: a seamless fusion of the cabaret and the theatrical modes. A low-key instrumental lead-in sets Clark up to deliver her opening lines as a cool sophisticate. She takes them parlando, on the notes but conversationally, with a touch of self-mockery, even clipping the half notes at the end of the tag line. Stay tuned, though, for the power crescendo, the swell of Mantovani strings, the climactic fanfare .... No doubt about it—Charlotte is crossing the threshold of a new tomorrow. Here comes an eleven-o'clock finish for sure .... Get set to jump to our feet, cheering.
But wait! In a coda that gives way to another coda, she relives the pang of a chance
encounter with her ex ("Please Let's Not Even Say Hello"), quickly to vanish in the blur from whence she emerged ("December Snow"). "So we beat on," Fitzgerald writes at the end of The Great Gatsby, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." We're where we came in, or are we? "You're no longer there," Charlotte repeats in the final dissolve. Has she found the means of moving on? Is she resigned to her solitude? Is her movie running in a loop?
What else has changed in the symphonic December Songs? Strikingly, one's first impression. At its premiere three decades ago and ever since, in live performances and recordings not only in English but also in German, Polish, and French, the opening number, "December Snow," started with a lulling prelude just three bars long. Drypoint gray on gray, the passage suggests the vocalist's footfalls as she trudges her aimless way. Spoiler alert: On this recording, you're in for a smash of cymbals, set jangling with Javanese crotales, plus brass and strings fortissimo. In a new introduction, expanded to eleven bars, we plunge into a maelstrom that is noir yet Technicolor, music fit for Alfred Hitchcock, Phantom of the Opera, or Das Lied von der Erde.
"Schubert creates a feeling of trauma at the beginning, and I wanted to do the same," says Yeston, explaining why he wrote the eleven new bars. "Larry establishes the strength and authority of the orchestra as the sonic world we'd be entering, rather than the pianistic one."
Then presto change-o! Winter muffles the city in magical atmospherics. The piano sketch for the new prelude segues into what Yeston calls "a little snowflake figure," proposing it be played by woodwinds and celeste. To Yeston's delight, Hochman chose celeste and harp instead. "I'm always pleased to see wonderful orchestration choices," Yeston says, "but I'm even more pleased when I see something wonderful, surprising, and unexpected."
Yeston, you should know, is himself a full-service composer. As such, he personally orchestrated his own early Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and the 2,000-voice choral symphony An American Cantata (a Kennedy Center commission for the new millennium). So, why would he leave the creative challenge here to an associate?
One answer is that such things happen all the time. Richard Wagner, wizard of the symphonic paint box though he was, never revisited his piano-vocal score of the crowd-pleasing, high-Romantic Wesendonck Lieder. Some recitalists perform Wagner's version, but mostly, audiences hear the lush orchestrations of the conductor Felix Mottl, his trusted associate.
"I orchestrate works that originate as orchestral forms," Yeston remarks. "But all of my musical-theater works are piano scores orchestrated by others. Larry was the perfect orchestrator for December Songs because he's such a gifted musical dramatist." What with one thing and another, the symphonic December Songsincludes hundreds, or more like thousands upon thousands, of new notes on paper—not to mention a whole new spectrum of stylistic possibilities. As in an iconic pop album (take your pick), there's continuity within surprising variety. If one track whisks us off to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Golden Age on Broadway, another puts us on a California freeway, tooling along with the top down and the dial set to Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini. Might those hard-charging riffs be channeling Kurt Weill? Or Jacques Brei, maybe? And for a moment there, an actual piano—dropped into the mix at five minutes to midnight, which is to say between the orchestra rehearsal and the recording session –sets us down in a boîte like the Oak Room, once the haunt of a certain torch singer named Andrea Marcovicci.
Stylistic chameleon that she is, Clark shifts naturally from register to register. In fact, given everything the composer, the star, and the arranger conjure up for the mind's eye in this new December Songs, you might start thinking of movies—great movies adapted from fiction that was just right as it was on the printed page: John Huston's The Dead, say, after James Joyce, or Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast, after Isak Dinesen; Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, after Annie Proulx, or Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, after Thomas Savage. In a platonic sense, nothing has changed. Yet all the particulars—the physical locations, the imagery, the faces of the players and the spin they give their lines, even the lighting—fill in blanks that in the books were no blanks at all, clothing the underlying idea in a material reality that has a rightness all its own.