‘The Anchoress’ by David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford beguiles in its world premiere
Wednesday was a good day for the composer: his Fanfare for Samuel Barber was played by the Curtis orchestra earlier, and night brought an entire program of his work.
David Serkin Ludwig has an ear for beauty. This may seem like a given for a composer, but somehow, for some, the quality can be elusive. Which is not to say Ludwig doesn't also use tension and dissonance. But the musical line in his pieces ultimately leads to a kind of going home — harmonically and emotionally.
Ludwig was the composer of "87.5 percent of the music on the program tonight," he told Wednesday's audience in the Perelman Theater for a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert.
The Curtis Institute of Music composition teacher has recently publicly embraced his provenance by adding between David and Ludwig the Serkin many already saw lightly penciled there. The pianist Rudolf Serkin, his grandfather, was once the head of Curtis, and at the risk of falling prey to parochial bias, it's easy to hear that Ludwig's compositional style is part of a certain Curtis school of thought that believes music should have emotional directness.
Ludwig's leanings were apparent earlier in the day as well. His Fanfare for Samuel Barber for orchestra was part of the memorial tribute to the philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest at the Academy of Music.
Not a bad day for a composer: having your orchestral piece played for essentially the entire power structure of the city during the afternoon, and then an evening devoted entirely to your work at a concert of the city's most prestigious music presenter.
In truth, Ludwig's fingerprints could be found on 100 percent of Wednesday night's program, though he did have a lot of help. The main draw was the premiere of The Anchoress, a beguilingly potent set of songs set to text of the poet Katie Ford. The program led up to it. Ludwig constructed pieces as building blocks to get certain sounds into the ear of the listener, explaining himself in comments to the audience along the way.
Ludwig is entranced by Guillaume de Machaut, the highly regarded 14th-century French poet and composer, and arranged three pieces by Mauchet that were played by Piffaro, the local early music group. His Josquin Microludes pivoted from early source material to a contemporary dissonance, with one of the movements, the fourth, having all the humor of a Scaramouche who starts out running and succumbs to a saunter.
Ludwig's Three Anchoress Songs had saxophonist Matthew Levy from sax quartet Prism and flutist Mimi Stillman locked in a dialogue that started as they entered from opposite ends of the stage. Our Long War, set to a trenchant poem by Ford, packed a punch — from the sound of curdled dreams (violinist Karen Kim) to the more carefree flavor of the middle (soprano Tiffany Townsend), to tolling in the piano part at the start and a sun-dappled ending (pianist Susan Nowicki).
Most of the players gathered for The Anchoress: six from Piffaro, the entire Prism foursome, plus the astonishingly deft and crystalline soprano Hyunah Yu. An anchoress, Ford explained, was a monastic from the early Middle Ages who literally walled herself off from society in a lean-to at a church, interacting with the outside world through a window to offer guidance as a kind of living saint. Ford writes not from ancient texts, but as a fictionalized character of her own creation.
Ludwig mixed wisely the modern saxes with ancient instruments like lute and delicate winds, opening up sound possibilities that were unusual, if not unique, like a gorgeous rush at the harmonic series from the ensemble in one song, a wheezing effect made beautiful in another. Yu had great stage presence, and her ability to double instruments with dead-on intonation and color match had a powerful effect all its own.
Composer and poet were as one, too. The last song unfurls quickly (sighing, waking up frozen, and accepting God despite and even through nothingness) in a text whose meaning Ludwig deepens with great skill. The music floats — sadly, beautifully, and with a small but keenly felt building toward hope as the musicians file off stage.