Art Song’s Rich Palette: the [plain] song in Boston

As I sat down to hear members of the {plain] song perform the Spanish Songbook by Hugo Wolf, it occurred to me that someone not already thoroughly steeped in the classical music world might well ask, “Why should I bother going to hear a bunch of songs in a language I don’t speak, written by an Austrian who died over a hundred years ago.” It’s a fair question. What, if anything, is relevant and appealing about this music in 21st-century America?

Well, I have a few possible answers. First of all, you can’t help but admire the talent and artistry of the performers. Classical performance is not just any old hobby; it requires years of study and practice, usually starting in childhood. I think you could appreciate the sheer beauty of the music, even if you didn’t understand a word being sung.

But the best reason, I think, is that art song contains such a rich palette of expression, and hearing it live, you really get to see the performers embody it. The experience is both intimate and expansive, drawing you into an individual’s experience as recounted from the singer’s point of view, while transcending any specific story (who hasn’t been in love and agonized over it, after all?). With its mix of sacred and secular songs, the Spanish Songbook encompasses a full range of human emotion: from grief to joy, contemplation to playfulness, and especially longing, both erotic and spiritual. There is humor, too – in one song, the singer asks her headache to go away.

One quirky detail: the title of the collection is the Spanish Songbook, but it is sung in German, which seems random, but it is simply because the composer knew the poetry as translated into his native language. This is the kind of inside baseball that can make classical music seem intimidating and off-putting, I’m afraid; my friend who was at the concert with me said, “And here in my ignorance, I thought the songs would be in Spanish!” A brief explainer is necessary in such cases.

If you’re in the Boston area, you have two more chances to hear this program, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Click here for details, and tell them Miss Music Nerd sent you!

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