Schubert comes alive at BPAA duo foreswears a meditation on death.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:34 PM
"It is a week before baritone David Williamson's and pianist Jim Quitslund's performance of Franz Schubert's difficult, rarely heard song cycle, Die Winterreise, and the two are hard at work onstage at the Playhouse.Williamson breaks off in the middle of a particularly challenging passage and rubs his head in exasperation until his hair sticks straight up. That was very awkwardly written, he says. It's supposed to be a gesture, and yet there are four syllables in that gesture - it's difficult.Looking to balance voice and instrument, they adjust the piano, shifting the instrument downstage left.Outside BPA the noon weather is balmy, but inside the music evokes winter night in a sterner clime. A man quietly slips out of a moonlit village, his tread muffled by new snow. He pauses only to write good night at the gate of his beloved. In another song of the cycle, the leave-taking is depicted quite differently - crows hurl snow and hailstones at him from every roof of the village. He barks his shins on the way out of the town. The ambiguity of opposed yet coexisting departures mirrors the complexity of the piece overall. There are 24 episodes, which chart an inner journey, the exploration of the wintry landscape of the protagonist's psyche. One moment he is the wry observer of his journey, the next, he expresses feelings with immediacy. Written by Schubert in 1827, the work's traditional interpretation is that the subtext of Romeo and Juliet - she loves him, he loves her, her family drives him away - is a contemplation of death, perhaps a harbinger of Schubert's own the following year.Williamson and Quitslund, though, made a pact that they would not sing it about death, studying the song cycle for a year to find their own interpretation. They arrived at these conclusions:That there exists no comparable music; That it is, in Quitslund's words, fiendishly difficult; And both came to believe that Schubert was traveling toward, or talking about, life through music - the life of the artist - rather than mortality.Life through music also defines Quitslund and Williamson, both singly and as a team.David Williamson was a founding member of Greasepaint and starred in numerous BPA productions. After graduating from Bainbridge High School in 1983, he studied singing at the New England Conservatory and German literature at Tufts. He is a candidate for a doctorate in music history at UW.Quitslund was rehearsal pianist and soloist in the heyday of Bainbridge Light Opera in the 1950s. In 1959 he went from Bainbridge High School to Harvard. He continued his literary studies at Oxford and taught German literature at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and at Williams College. Quitslund and Williamson met in 1996, when Quitslund was accompanist for a BPA production. The two performed Schumann's songs to poems by Heine for a Darden Burns musical evening.Both say they have been plotting ever since to find the right venue and music.When a professor told Williamson he shouldn't sing Die Winterreise until he was 75, Williamson and Quitslund decided to tackle the song cycle. They had noted the dearth of lieder in Seattle and wished also to deepen the seriousness of music performed at BPA.They decided the performance would be a benefit concert, to show their personal appreciation to that organization. Proceeds will benefit the BPA Classical Music Fund.Then began the business of interpretation, finding the doorway into the work. You can start a piece and you simply can't find it. Often, it's a question of tempo, Williamson says. You tweak tempo a little, and then it's there. You have to generate energy, going in, for 24 songs, Quitslund says, but you don't want to give everything. You have to be spacious. What you do is establish a trajectory. You confront the text and internalize it that way, Williamson says. Because the poetry was the first step. Then Schubert entered the conversation and a new kind of communication took place. Now, 180 years later, the work has developed a crust. We want to pare it away. * * * * *Schubert's Die Winterreise will be performed at 4 p.m. Jan. 14 at at the BPA Playhouse. Tickets can be purchased at BPA box office or charged by phone at 842-8569 - $18/adults and $15/seniors and students. "