SALEM — For “Song Cycle,” Friday’s collaboration between the Peabody Essex Museum’s Present Tense contemporary-art initiative and the interdisciplinary Encounters Ensemble, directed by PEM composer-in-residence Matthew Aucoin, groups of spectators cycled through galleries repurposed as sets for art song performances, lightly staged by director Victoria Crutchfield. The concert leveraged the museum for what music usually strives to create on its own: atmosphere.
A gallery of Japanese art, for instance, became a courtyard as Debra Vanderlinde, singing Claude Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées,” wandered an overhead mezzanine, subtle video projections contributing to a melancholy, nostalgic air. Vanderlinde’s characterization — Miss Havisham à la Française (echoed in designer Courtney Nelson’s frayed-silk decor) — was cogent, though the soprano worked hard to traverse the music’s registers, and the rhythmic connection between her and pianist Julius Abrahams varied with the spatial and acoustic distance between them.
For Alban Berg’s “Sieben Frühe Lieder,” a black-and-white color scheme and Mary Ellen Stebbins’s harsh lighting evoked Expressionist cinema, while Nina Bova’s costumes (Art Nouveau flourishes and abstract inkblots) mirrored the music’s Romantic-modernist divide. Transferring Berg’s vocal line to violin — eliminating both the text and the liaison of phrase and breath — sacrificed much of the score’s expressive possibility. But Keir Go-Gwilt’s playing (with pianist David Kaplan) was sure and stylish.
Another gallery of Asian curios became a Parisian salon for Maurice Ravel’s “Histoires naturelles,” setting Jules Renard’s animal stories with debonair precision. Crutchfield gave baritone Matthew Worth a young foil (Annabelle Howard) and a direct concept — dress-up and child’s play — resulting in fluent entertainment. The performance was superb, pianist Stephen Scarlato elegantly setting up Worth’s suave, buoyant, beautiful singing.
Finally, the entire audience gathered in the East India Marine Hall for the premiere of “This Earth,” Aucoin’s setting of a literal and spiritual dawn from the “Purgatorio” section of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” (Aucoin’s recently premiered opera, “Crossing,” also made its Civil War-hospital setting an explicitly Dantesque locale.) Arpeggios delicately glimmer before day breaks on a surge of hammered piano chords. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s lines resourcefully wove in and out of harmonic agreement with the accompaniment — but that background was often structurally static, giving the piece the feel of a windup to a sweeping catharsis that never arrived. (The music didn’t so much conclude as dramatically cease.)
The piece has extroverted flair, though, and the pair made stirring work of it, with a big, high-contrast performance, Costanzo’s strong, steady voice soaring above Aucoin’s unabashedly grand piano. It fit the emphasis on mood over narrative, the presentation of musical works as evocative objects. The museum is full of artifacts with stories; the concert made its stories into artifacts.
Matthew Aucoin, artistic director
At: Peabody Essex Museum, Friday