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Violinist James Stern Recites Eliot's "The Waste Land"

JamesStern.jpgSince March 18, 2012, during a VERGE ensemble concert when the violinist James Stern recited all five sections of T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," the Dresser has been pinching herself trying to understand how she feels about an artist who has considerable talent as a violinist sharing his stage time in the delivery of a monolithic poem where the violin performance becomes secondary. The Dresser admires Stern's poetic performance, which was fluid--he moved around the Corcoran Gallery of Art's tiny stage without a misstep--and completely at ease--he knew this poem passionately well.

When the Dresser hears Eliot read "The Waste Land" knowing he was an American from Missouri but who had developed a British accent, this also gives her pause. In truth, the Dresser finds the poem itself overwhelming. It is loaded with centuries of literary allusions and commonplace interactions with characters Eliot created and brought to life. Though the poem was published in 1922, the themes of immorality, violent sexual encounters, loss of spirituality and dual fears of life and death still seem to talk to our current day issues. The Dresser studied it in college with a favorite professor and it is a poem with which one can never have too many encounters. It's also a poem that has affected how the Dresser looks at the world. She never fails to associate the month of April with Eliot's opening lines:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Not to mention those opening lines with lilacs breeding out of dead land resonant with Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," a tribute to the assassinated American president Abraham Lincoln.

The Dresser never fails to see hyacinths but is tossed into Eliot's lines:

"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl."
--Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing...

So indeed, the Dresser is grateful for James Stern's dramatic performance but that does not put to rest how she feels about hearing this poem introduced by Stern's arousing violin performance of Leon Kirchner's "For Violin Solo," (this is an atonal piece that ends with a whimper as the bow slides into silence--definitely a good introduction to Eliot's masterpiece that ends with a repeated chant for peace) and then the second-half-of-the-concert edge-of-the-seat selection that brought violinist Stern back on stage with Audrey Andrist at the piano and James Ross playing French horn in György Ligeti's "Trio" (1982).LigetiTrio.jpg

Should Stern have said something to introduce his program? The Dresser is not sure because she found his written program notes over intellectualized and therein lies the danger with Eliot. What she thinks could have helped was a simple statement, written or spoken, saying how Stern came to memorize this poem and what performing it means to him as well as a straightforward list of the short violin passages that punctuated the spoken performance. The Dresser gets how Stern links Ligeti to Eliot through his concert title "Masters of Allusion." Ligeti's "Trio," with its subtitle "Hommage à Brahms" nods to the past in order to achieve a new direction in Ligeti's work. But after the concert what remained with the Dresser was the idea of a very accomplished violinist reciting T. S. Eliot.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 21, 2012 3:21 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Stealing the Body: Gypsies from the Katona József Theater.

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