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Terez Mertes

Thank You For Remembering

February 9, 2012 at 2:28 PM

Debussy’s String Quartet in G-minor is one of those pieces of music that I will listen to over and over, struck anew by the power that resides within it, its energy and originality and rich textures. The third movement, ever my favorite, seems to impart a secret message, one you must be very still and quiet to hear. It seems to encompass a story, one of love, pain and redemption that afterward haunts you.

I had the opportunity to hear this quartet performed last Saturday at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato had joined the Alexander String Quartet in the world premiere of American composer Jake Heggie’s Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. DiDonato, in case you are unfamiliar with her, was recipient of the 2010 Gramophone “Artist of the Year” award, and has been hailed by the New Yorker as “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation.” Featured on the cover of December’s Opera News, she’s generated a great deal of well-deserved buzz in the classical music world. To pair her performance with a rendition of the Debussy made for a spectacular night of music.

The program opener, "Venezia," by 19th century composer Reynaldo Hahn, with Heggie at the piano accompanying DiDonato, was delightful, a sumptuous appetizer before the main course. Debussy’s Quartet in G-minor followed, and after intermission came Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. The evening’s performance, satisfying on so many levels, produced two particular moments of haunting transcendence. One, as I’d hoped and anticipated, was the Alexander String Quartet’s rendition of the Debussy, and that oh-so-crucial-to-me third movement. The second was DiDonato’s performance as Camille Claudel, in the song cycle’s final piece, the Epilogue, where the once fiery, exuberant young sculptress had become a subdued, shadow image of her former self.

First, a bit of history on Camille Claudel. Born in 1864, she was an artist, a sculptress of considerable talent. She became Rodin’s student, protégée, lover, but was eventually betrayed by him, then by her family, by the dictates of a society that did not treat female genius sculptresses with favor. In the wake of increasingly unstable mental health, her family had her institutionalized. She never sculpted again, and spent the last 30 years of her life largely in solitude.

Heggie’s composition contains seven movements, each one revolving around one of Claudel’s sculptures and her musings on the day she is to be committed. The exception is the Epilogue, which is based on a photograph taken decades later, Camille with a visitor at the asylum, her old art school friend, Jessie Lipscomb. The text, penned by librettist Gene Scheer, is thoughtful, powerful in its economy, particularly affecting here.

Do you remember our studio in Paris? Everything moving.
Two young women, so many ideas. Look at me now!
Oh, Jessie… Every dream I ever had was of movement.
Touching. Breathing. Reaching. Hovering.
Something always about to change…

A photograph? Just me and you. Yes. I understand. I must be very still.

Thank you for remembering me.

And that’s how it ends.

There stands Joyce DiDonato, as gifted an actress as she is a singer, having morphed into an aging Camille Claudel, left to languish. Spirit broken, bereft of illusions, there is nonetheless the youthful Camille still visible behind the eyes as she tells us in a small voice, “Thank you for remembering me.”

Well, that pretty much broke me up inside, freeing the tears to come galloping to the surface. And how uncannily similar to the feelings the Debussy’s third movement evoked in me, both with their mix of gravity, tenderness, using pauses and breaths as effectively as if they were instruments. The final effect is devastating, unforgettable. It’s what fine art is all about.

Claude Debussy ties in, in more delicious ways. He was a great admirer of Camille Claudel and her work. She’d presented him with a copy of her sculpture, “La Valse,” that he kept on his mantel until his death. La Valse: “the waltz.” One of the seven subjects of the song cycle, and the very feeling and image Heggie’s composition conjures up and carries through.

I loved the 1988 film Camille Claudel, actress Isabelle Adjani’s performance and mesmerizing blue eyes, but I must say that I will remember Claudel even more clearly now, after hearing this composition, watching this performance.

Thank you for remembering me.

Thank you, Jake and Gene and Joyce and Camille and Claude and members of the Alexander String Quartet, for reminding us of the art and artists worth remembering.

© 2012 Terez Rose

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 4:35 PM
What imaginative programming. And awfully nice writing, too. ;) Thanks so much for sharing.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 5:07 PM
Emily - although Camille Claudel wasn't a violinist, I know you, with your interest in strong female artists of the past, would have loved her story, the program notes, the photos of her sculptures, and the overall homage the composition paid her. Neat to have witnessed. Jake Heggie did a great job.

And thanks for your comments!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 6:25 PM
It's so poignant, and I think we can all relate; at some point we all face "losing it" -- life is finite, we are imperfect and mortal.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 6:33 PM
Laurie, you said it. And I think that's what made the last line so powerful for everyone watching it. Even Joyce DiDonato teared up after singing the last line, which, of course, made all of us in the audience tear up even more. (The silent, stern-faced man beside me was even sniffing.) It was one of those amazing moments of collective understanding of a universal truth. And, the power of Joyce's acting and performing skills, that she was able to conjure up such a vivid image, such a complicated truth.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 7:10 PM
Sounds like a wonderful experience. You are so lucky. Hopefully, the piece will make it to our part of the world so I can hear it. I remember the film quite vividly. She was a very interesting person and someone who should interest Emily (assuming she is interested in women other than violinists).
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 9:11 PM
Tom, yes, I feel very lucky to have been able to slip away from family obligations and Boulder Creek to go see it. Not a given, that. Now YOU, on the other hand, have great access to this kind of stuff on a regular basis. Didn't you once say that you and your wife went out 2-3 times a week to such events? On - gasp! - weeknights, even?! Sigh... Lucky you!

Shifting gears, I loved the movie, too. Highly recommended to those who've never seen it.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on February 9, 2012 at 10:13 PM
"She was a very interesting person and someone who should interest Emily (assuming she is interested in women other than violinists)."

I'm interested in all women. Especially creative ones. So if anyone reading this has a story about a creative woman to share like Terez, hey, feel free to PM me...

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 12:26 AM
One has to wonder the extent to which she was actually mentally ill versus the extent to which she was raging at an untenable situation. Wanting a career, having an affair outside of marriage, she's probably lucky she didn't end up lobotomized. What are the chances she was in effect jailed?
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 6:28 AM
I was going to PM this to Emily, but it was relevant to other comments later. I had a great aunt who was institutionalized by her mother following the birth of her child. While in the institution, she wrote poetry, although I haven't found anyone who actually has copies of her poetry. She had all sorts of experiments performed on her and ended up incapable of living outside of the institution, although she was allowed weekend visits to her family. She lived to a fairly decent age, too.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 1:34 PM
Francesca, yikes! That's ghastly. And Lisa, from the sounds of it, she was suffering from paranoid delusions and, at least initially, institutionalization was deemed necessary. What's tragic is that the family insisted what she needed was near total confinement, and that, she didn't. And the doctors told her family, years later, that she was "well" enough to leave the asylum and resume a normal life within her family, and her mother and brother refused to take that suggestion. During her thirty years of confinement, her mother and sister never visited, and her brother, only a few times.

Ahh, family love and support...

It makes the visit from Jessie Liscomb, the photo, Camille's words, all the more effective and devastating in the song-cycle.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 1:39 PM
And BTW, Emily, I'm happy to use this thread as a discussion on strong, creative women artists of the past, no need to have people PM you separately. Their names and stories deserve to be shouted out as publicly as possible.

I, for one, can never get over the burden Clara Schumann carried through her life, not just the domineering father, the difficult (but very loving) husband, but the way she continued concertizing through their marriage, having kid after kid (did she end up with seven, or something?!) And what a burden for her when Robert was institutionalized, and this time, it was he who refused to let her come see him. What kind of life did the poor woman have over the next several years, as Robert languished in the asylum? Well, she continued mothering her many children AND concertizing to make money so the family didn't fall into deeper poverty. Wow. What a woman.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 2:34 PM
Anyone interested in strong, creative women should perhaps learn about my relative, Wanda Landowska. She resurrected the harpsichord from oblivion. She was probably the greatest harpsichord player of the first half of the 20th century, and one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. She consistently advocated for the harpsichord and period performance, and popularized period performance so that it did not remain a cult in a few universities. She made the first recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. There is a decent argument that she was the most influential and important female classical musician who ever lived, at least in the modern era. She was also a lesbian who had an interesting domestic arrangement with her husband before he died. She is a fascinating, creative woman.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 3:00 PM
Harold Schonberg covered Clara Schumann in "The Great Pianists", in case you want to read about her as a performer and teacher.

The Debussy string quartet is one of the greatest. Glad to hear the ASQ did it justice!

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 3:29 PM
And then you add in Clara's amazing relationship with Brahms, which was this incredible intellectual intimacy. Anyone interested in her ought to check out Swafford's Brahms biography, which I blogged about a few weeks ago...
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 8:24 PM
Tom - WOW!!! Dang. Impressive relation.

Anne - about time you show up! ; )

Emily - link, please?

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 8:45 PM
I read a biography of Clara Schumann. (Sorry--didn't note title or author.) Many of her children died young and some of them had mental afflictions, also. The book said it was the institution that refused to let her visit--because it made Robert more agitated.

Regarding Wanda Landowska: Double wow. There was a great quote of hers in Arnold Steinhart's "Violin Dreams":
"Oh well, you play Bach your way and I'll play him his." And there's a book--I think it's called "Octet"--with a chapter on her. I'll have to find the book and reread it.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 9:38 PM
>Regarding Wanda Landowska: Double wow. There was a great quote of hers in Arnold Steinhart's "Violin Dreams":
"Oh well, you play Bach your way and I'll play him his." And there's a book--I think it's called "Octet"--with a chapter on her. I'll have to find the book and reread it.

Tom... WOWer!! (Wowest? Wowissimo?)

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on February 11, 2012 at 2:43 AM
From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 11, 2012 at 7:02 PM
Terez - I am a relative mediocrity from a family containing lots of professional or professional-quality musicians. Wanda is only the best of them. Unfortunately, at this point, they have all joined the ancestors.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 12, 2012 at 4:25 PM
Death... the great equalizer. : /
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 12, 2012 at 4:30 PM
...Ooh, Emily, I enjoyed reading your blog! I love Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 1; can't wait to listen to that slow movement again, knowing Brahms had Clara in mind as he wrote it. Such a fascinating subject, their relationship.

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