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Proust & Music at Bard

The Labyrinth of Memory
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jan 24th, 2016

Sarah Rothenberg

On Sunday Bard College offered a free preview of A Proust Sonata: 7 tableaux en musique at the LUMA Theater. Conceived and directed by Sarah Rothenberg, who plays the piano during this dramatic mix of music and monologue on the life of Marcel Proust, with a script lifted from excerpts of Proust’s poems and his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (as well as the memoirs of Celeste Albaret, Monsieur Proust), we witness memorial hagiography of writer as martyr to the profession of scribbling ink. Henry Stram plays Proust with exactitude, aplomb, and finesse, while Nancy Hume engagingly doubles as devout maid Céleste and drawing-room sophisticate Francoise.

Tenor Nicholas Phan held forth with ardent solos, Rothenberg accompanying. Rothenberg was especially accomplished in her solo performance of Maurice Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan, a Debussy-like cascading piece that reveled in ocean waves. Violinist Boson Mo ably accompanied Rothenberg on several numbers. A string quartet composed of Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh on first violin, Andres Rivas on second violin, Omar Shelly on viola, and Andrew Borkowski on cello melded together in “A View of Delft,” a movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major no. 16, op, 135. Bed-ridden, Proust sometimes hired a quartet to perform for him in his house; two of those musicians wrote memoirs, so we know Proust most often listened to quartets by Beethoven, Fauré, and Franck (whose reputation appears to have somewhat dimmed over the past thirty years). Fauré’s song “Ici-bas!” served as a refrain in both acts and his Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, op.13 was a real treat to hear.

The two-and-a-half hour program was the culmination of a one-week workshop at Bard in preparation for the program’s premiere in Houston three weeks away. The style of Proust’s famous seven-volume autobiographical novel has deep roots in Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s last work, Reveries. (A Proustian digression: I once attended a festschrift banquet for a noted mentor of mine during which I conversed with a Yale French literature teacher who waxed eloquent on Paul Valery while expressing great disappointment in the current neglect of Valery in America, saying the next time he went to France he would make a respectful pilgrimage to Valery’s grave to shed a few tears. I replied that Americans were content with Valery's imitator, Wallace Stevens, but if I were to make a pilgrimage to a French writer’s grave, I would make a pilgrimage to the grave of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—upon which he turned from me in anger, saying he would no longer converse with me, later arriving at my dinner table and filching a bottle of wine before my plate, saying that he and his entourage had greater need of the bottle than I. Yet I’ve endured more rudeness than that from other Ivy League professors.) Proust was France’s syntactical Homer; Albert Einstein and Proust led James Joyce into the multi-layered linguistic puzzles and puns that comprise Finnegans Wake.

The production at Bard presented a marvelous integration of elegant words, fin de siècle poetry, and dreamy period music that culminated in the noted Epicurean allegory of the tea and madeleine from Proust’s early volume Du côté de chez Swann which recalls the exfoliating and echoing domestic pleasure of childhood among the elite 1%.