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Ronen finale: Norwegian guests join Ronen Chamber Ensemble for programm of Grieg, Franck and others

The Ronen Chamber Ensemble marked the conclusion of its current Sister Cities Project season  with a focus on
Norway that benefited from the participation of two first-class Norwegian musicians.

Chamber-music masterpieces performed by locally connected musicians constituted the two substantial works at the program's start and finish at Indiana Landmarks Center Tuesday evening.

Adept pianist Einar Røttingen
Paying immediate tribute to its guests, the Ronen program opened with Edvard Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, op. 13.  Jayna Park was joined by Ronen artistic director Gregory Martin in a work typical of its composer in melodic charm contrasted with energetic dancelike episodes.

The recitative-like opening statement by the violin first grabbed the attention, performed as if in confirmation that the minimizing label of "nationalist" composer sits uneasily upon a creator with fresh things to say in absolute music. The florid phrases in the main theme of the second movement were particularly inviting, as if fulfilling with the hesitant promise of the piano introduction. In the finale, lyrical contrasts to the music's vigorous manner were balanced and expressively forward-looking, which made the duo's relative lack of bravura in the final measures a tad disappointing.

Jumping to the program finale, Martin was back onstage to be joined by violist Li Li, co-founder and artistic director Ingrid Fischer-Bellman (cello), and violinist Joel Smirnoff for a sojourn away from Scandinavia that lent the program part of its title, "Grieg and Music of Fin-de-Siecle France." The vehicle was Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, op. 15.  The weight of that "fin-de-siecle" label may have been a bit lost amid wave after wave of successive fads and trends both cultural and specifically musical.

Yet it's clear that the continuing appeal of a late 19th-century aesthetic, especially that centered in France, comes through in some of Fauré's best music. It's summed up in a sentence of description from the entry about the relatively long-lived composer (1845-1924) in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians: "He...sometimes yielded to the gracefulness of the '1880s style' — melodious, tortuous and languid...." The rippling rapidity of the piano in the second movement, against pizzicato strings, emphasized gracefulness for its own sake. And those three salient adjectives all apply significantly to the third movement; the pathos of the second theme in particular was well-marked in this performance.

Njål  Sparbo, Ronen's guest baritone
It must be said that there was a meeting of musical minds in the performance that was not always matched by the execution, which reflected the unalterable fact that we were hearing one-time-only group of four professionals aiming to produce a common effect. It came close to representing the piece well, however.

The great treat that made the concert special was the participation of Njål Sparbo, baritone, and Einar Røttingen, his countryman at the piano for several songs,  as well as for some short solo pieces. Røttingen showed a gift for fully characterizing miniatures, such as Harald Sœverud's "Her Last Cradlesong," a mother's lament for her dead infant, and a sonatina movement that was plainly frivolous, with a flippant ending that delighted the audience.

Similarly, Geirr Tveitt, like Sœverud a Norwegian countryman esteemed as a lesser light to Grieg, was represented as a composer for solo piano by the brooding, romantic "Fare Thee Well" and the picturesque "Mountain Call," in which Røttingen deftly projected the echo effect of phrases repeated as if over a wide expanse. After intermission, Grieg, an exquisite composer for piano, got proper exposition with two memorable pieces given full honor in the guest pianist's interpretation: "Arietta" (op. 12, no. 1) and "Notturno (op. 54, no. 4).

Sparbo  displayed a fine, flexible baritone, solid in all registers, in Grieg's "The Time of Roses,""With a Water Lily," and "The Old Mother." The tone had a consistent glow, and especially in "The Old Mother," sensitively applied dynamics. His easy reach into a floating upper voice reminiscent of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's first showed up in Tveitt's "March Evening." That composer was also represented in what could almost be called a scena after the linked dramatic solos familiar in Italian opera; but "Night and Day" did not involve dramatic impersonation embracing several moods so much as a diverse narrative that brought to life a Norse creation myth involving a striding giant and cosmic horses galloping in relay. Thus they were imagined to have created night and day — which, in the Arctic regions, each have commanding positions for about half the year. Sparbo's characterization was full-bore and as spellbinding, even given the language barrier, as a master storyteller's.

Ho-jo-to-ho! A fever-dream of U.S. politics smushed together with 'The Ring of the Nibelung'

The Ring of the Nebulous
(An April Fool’s Day operatic fantasy mashing up American politics on today's left and the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of the Ring Cycle)

Current poster for production of the pivotal opera in the real "Ring."
Ages ago, communities formed out of necessity and created symbols and forms of wealth to help assure their prosperity and continuity. But greed and lust soon compromised devotion to the communitarian ideal. Value passed out of the hands of those who created it and was promiscuously distributed, sometimes by violence and theft. Values eventually solidified uneasily under two headings — one material, the other spiritual. But material wealth, essential to triumph of both values, has largely stopped flowing, having coagulated under the control of Monopoly Capitalism, taking the form of a precious Ring guarded by a Dragon who killed his rivals and cheated his partners.

Old Socialism, the inheritor of the damaged communitarian ideal, would do everything to get the Ring back and restore it to its proper function, though what that was remains vague, or nebulous. Through his belief in an idealized State of Nature he fathered the union of Big Money and Big Fundamentalism.  Unfortunately for him Big Money has become a murderous nomad, and Big Fundamentalism is trapped in a toxic marriage to Pastoral Authority. He had thought that from that marriage he could devise a way to assure the eternal survival of his values.  His consort, Liberal Democracy, also swore allegiance to the communitarian ideal, but she is a bulwark of ethical standards, and averse to her husband’s authoritarianism. Scandalized by the incest, she has insisted on the household’s dissolution.

A Wotan figure for our times, Bernie strives to advance his vision
But Old Socialism, having established a power base in Vermont he calls Marx Manor, has ideologically fathered a warrior band, the Millennialkyries, sending his favorite one, Alexandria, into battle to rescue the result of the Money/Fundamentalism union. At the behest of Liberal Democracy, he changes his mind. Alexandria, sensing Old Socialism’s fondness for his offspring, disobeys the new order. She has her own agenda: to resist the worn-out platitudes of Old Socialism in the name of Democratic Socialism, the steed she rides into battle, returning fallen heroes to perpetual honor at Marx Manor. She names the rescued offspring Green New Deal. But Liberal Democracy has demanded that Old Socialism punish Alexandria for breaking the marital bond. Reluctantly, Old Socialism places the Millennialkyrie on a pyre surrounded by the Flames of Publicity. She must remain thus shielded until the arrival of a hero bold enough to break through and liberate her.

Green New Deal grows quickly into a strong young man, naïve and fearless, groomed to be a hero. Old Socialism has given his grandson a weapon forged by the dwarfish race of wealth creators; it is called Alternative Forms of Energy. Thus Green New Deal launches a mission to slay the guardian of the stolen wealth, a resentful Dragon of Monopoly Capitalism, who is more behind on payments to creditors than even Old Socialism. Once this mission is accomplished, with the Dragon roaring “Fake News!” at the end, Green New Deal has the secret of society’s transformation in his possession.
Alexandria, hemmed in by the Flames of Publicity, awaits deliverance.

After relieving Alexandria of her confinement by the Flames of Publicity, Green New Deal is ready to fully emerge as a hero. But he is tricked into surrendering the powers his new status has given him by Big Fundamentalism, now represented by of the baleful Pence and his consort, Mother. Their victory will inevitably need the contribution of Big Money, so the magic Ring of the Nebulous must not be allowed to be returned to Old Socialism. Green New Deal forgets his mission under the machinations of Big Fundamentalism, but yields the ring to Alexandria as surety of his bond to her and sets forth to fulfill his mission.  Alexandria waits patiently for him outside a cave in the Bronx.

Old Socialism, disguised as Bernie the Wanderer, descends to Earth to reset Green New Deal on the right path, and, meeting him, mocks his ignorance. “Big banks are the main problem,” he says. “A healthier environment will follow.” Insulted to combat, Green New Deal shatters Old Socialism’s spear, Political Correctness. Soon, however, the eager hero, falsely promised fulfillment, is stabbed in the back by the deceptions of Pence and Mother, who fear they will lose all power if the hero should triumph.

The distraught Alexandria, faithful to the last to her lost love, mounts the steed of Democratic Socialism and rides into Marx Manor, setting it afire with the cursed power of the Ring of the Nebulous. The flames consume the underfunded, ideologically flimsy estate, and everyone perishes – including Old Socialism, Liberal Democracy, Democratic Socialism, and Alexandria’s colleagues and rivals, among them Elizabeth, Cory, Kamala, Joaquin, Beto, Zeppo, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. In a final outburst before he too is consumed, Rudy, the Dwarf of Gotham, makes a futile grab for the Ring, just before everything is reduced to cinders.

Here’s a crucial part of the opera libretto, written in the alliterative style of ancient Germanic verse (Stabreim) that Wagner adopted for his tetralogy and that English readers know chiefly in “Beowulf.” The scene is the argument between Old Socialism and the Millennialkyrie, who has defied him and thwarted his agreement with Liberal Democracy to spare Big Money and Big Fundamentalism. Her disobedience necessitates the imposition of a punishment confining her within a wall of fire until a hero’s rescue.

Here you are to hold me responsible, right?

Old Socialism:
You punish yourself palpably, too ready to rise,
Deficient in honor to daring deeds of old.

Being Millennials, we are meaning to burgeon,
And so we rise greatly to hit the ground running.

Old Socialism:
But without my blessing, you were a barmaid wasting:
I boldly mandated the benefice of your mission.

Moving dead heroes monotonously to Marx Manor
Is a slave’s mission: Harrowing earth’s hell, we slink
Away from the fraught condition of the world
To wearily tend to your worn-out tenets.
Like the dreadful, leering Dragon,
You reveled for years in raucous rallies,
While we knocked on many neighbors’ doors,
Valiantly deserving the vote deluge
That came to us so convincingly.

Old Socialism:
These boasts are your failings foretold,
Born of inexperience, blatant and banal:
Retail politics rends real progress
And dishonoring elders is dangerous.

Your old socialism sinks ever into senility.
Your vaunted spear, Surplus Value, surprises
No more, your values invalid, unvenerated:
If workers no long weave ways to wield
The means of production, what message
Make you beyond moaning of unfairness?

Old Socialism:
It grieves me greatly that you must yield now.
Fitting is it that you suffer for falseness
To the service that sustains us. Surrounded
By the forever Flames of Publicity,
The substantial aspect of your celebrity,
Only a puissant paladin may penetrate
The pale, one pure and impervious to fear.

Whatevs! That’s what I warrior-like reply
To this demented law of Liberal Democracy
To satisfy the surrender of old socialism,
Putting the people and the planet in peril.

Old Socialism:
So must it be. Mingle, mainstream media!
Come engender fits of furious fire
Mounted magically about this Millennialkyrie
Until her deliverance may descend
From valor unveiled, perhaps via
Green New Deal, undaunted and dexterous.
Farewell! I vacate now this venue
To mourn at Marx Manor in Vermont.

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