Songwriter Gabriel Kahane, who’ll bring his orchestral song cycle “Crane Palimpsest” to the Northwest Sinfonietta concerts this weekend. Gabriel Kahane Courtesy
Songwriter Gabriel Kahane, who’ll bring his orchestral song cycle “Crane Palimpsest” to the Northwest Sinfonietta concerts this weekend. Gabriel Kahane Courtesy

Arts & Culture

Northwest Sinfonietta pairs Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ with Gabriel Kahane

By Rosemary Ponnekanti

rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

May 17, 2017 05:19 AM

It’s tough to choose a piece to pair with Mozart’s “Requiem in D minor.” One of the most famous classical works ever (and even more popular after the movie “Amadeus”), the “Requiem” is mammoth, a monolith of musical emotion. Whatever else you put on the program has a lot to compete with, kind of like opening for David Bowie.

This weekend in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup, however, the Northwest Sinfonietta pairs the Requiem with something unexpected and creative: singer/pianist Gabriel Kahane with a song cycle that echoes the spirit of Mozart’s deathbed work.

“Though these pieces might seem disparate, they actually embody very similar spirits and history,” said Eric Jacobsen, conductor for this weekend’s concerts, who has recorded Kahane’s “Crane Palimpsest” with his out-of-the-box New York chamber orchestra The Knights.

One thing both pieces share, points out Jacobsen, is being original and rooted in history at the same time. Kahane, a Brooklyn-based songwriter and collaborator, wrote “Crane Palimpsest” as a meditation on the Brooklyn Bridge. Juxtaposing stanzas from American poet Hart Crane’s “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” with his own lyrics, he bridges the eloquent, modernist style of the early 20th century poet with crisp, contemporary metaphors.

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“(It’s) like a musical time warp,” said Kahane.

Mozart, meanwhile, drew on an ancient medieval Catholic ritual — the requiem Mass for the dead. Taking the various sections of Latin text that memorialize and uplift, he set them to one of the most perfect expressions of 18th century classical music ever written, with groundbreaking instrumentation like the haunting opening in bassett horns or majestic trombone solo in the “Tuba Mirum.”

Yet both pieces have something deeper in common: the palimpsest.

“A palimpsest is a document (in this case a musical score) on which the original notation has been erased to make room for newer writings, (though) traces of the original remain,” said Jacobsen.

In “Crane Palimpsest,” Kahane deliberately does this with Crane’s poem. For the “Requiem,” though, death was the agent: Mozart fell ill and died while writing the work, suffering high fever, massive edema and rashes that medical researchers now think may have been a streptococcal infection. The unfinished movements were completed by the composer’s student Süssmayr (not a jealous Salieri, as the movie would have it) — making it a palimpsest of sorts.

“Gabriel’s piece is also both antique and set in classical history, as well as being devastatingly original and powerful,” said Jacobsen, of why he chose to pair the pieces. “This would also be true for the Mozart.”

Soloists for the Sinfonietta’s “Requiem” — the final concert in the season — include soprano Megan Chenovick, mezzo Nerys Jones, tenor Ross Hauck and baritone Charles Robert Stephens, with the Seattle Choral Company as chorus.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Mozart’s Requiem

Who: Northwest Sinfonietta directed by Eric Jacobsen with Gabriel Kahane, piano/vocals.

When/where: 7:30 p.m. Friday (May 19) at Nordstrom Recital Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma; 2 p.m. Sunday at Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup.

Tickets: Seattle, $21.50-$36.50; Tacoma, $20-$50; Puyallup, $35/$10 student rush.

Information: 888-356-6040, northwestsinfonietta.org.