Folk Songs, Bernard Rands - Composer Portraits Concert

Miller Theatre, Columbia University

13th November, 2014

HIgh Folk Art

In an age so overheated by the distracted noise of electronica, composer Bernard Rands' music is like a sip of pure water from a chilly spring.  At 80, he remains a composer of that generation or school that chose the natural, uncultured world as its chief inspiration, even when exploring abstract theory.  We may have John Luther Adams leading on that front today, though his [Alaskan] Nature is awesome, omnipotent, whereas Rands' is like his native England: gentle, consoling, rustic.

And although there may seem few things less natural than a countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo made Rands' Folk Songs his own, bringing distinct characterization and heartfelt storytelling to the collection of milkmaids, serenading suitors and kids whistling jingles.  His physicalization was impressive, especially from behind a music stand, and I only would have wished for some more emphatic diction from him, for the text to have been allowed to communicate as clearly as his body.

© 2014 Richard Termine

The cycle as a whole (nine arrangements of folk songs from different regions of the world where Rands has lived) is more strictly tonal than most of the composer's work, making plain the tender, ephemeral kind of beauty that pervades his writing.   His is a music of a peripheral sense: murmuring phrases, muted drones, fleeting wisps of sound (a scratch, a knock, a clang) always lying somewhere just beyond our grasp.

This delicate instrumental ensemble was written (and performed) in a way that never obscured the voice and that highlighted the emotive colors of the texts.  The regional character of the different songs (a South American coffee plantation; an Italian seaside; a Bavarian farm, etc.) was also evoked without lapsing into anthropological literalism or gimmickry.

Rands' style is well-suited to the folk genre in that he is a humble composer, effacing himself, or at least his creative control, from the process.  Through the use of aleatoric and improvisational structures, he allows the performer's voice and instinct to lead us down unexpected paths.  Sometimes the result is rambling and unfocussed; sometimes it is revelatory.

What we are left with is a Composer Portrait in which the composer himself remains only a sketched outline, and the creative impulse itself is the luminary in the room.

Bottom Line: it takes a lot of money to look this cheap (- Dolly Parton)


Georges Briscot



response to this review:


ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and
Anthony Roth Costanzo, countertenor
Christian Knapp, conductor