The Philadelphia Fringe Festival would have to thrive somewhat on surprise — and that was accomplished Friday not with some wild digital imagery but with the FringeArts stage decorated like a cozy parlor. Lamps had stylish shades. You wished the Oriental rugs were yours. The occasion: Songs of Wars I Have Seen featuring members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Tempesta di Mare baroque orchestra — not frequent Fringe visitors — with narrated Gertrude Stein readings from World War II France.
The piece is part of Fringe Festival residency by Heiner Goebbels, the esteemed composer/director/installation designer whose epic-scale works are often staged in warehouses (such as Stifter's Dinge, also this weekend at the Navy Yard), though Songs of Wars was traditionally scaled for a 19-piece orchestra and minimal visual element.
A figure of his stature is yet another confirmation that the Fringe Festival is a major clearinghouse for important, forward-looking works both by local and international artists. "Bravo" on principle for Fringe — plus a more mesmerized appreciation for Songs of Wars — a slowly insinuating piece whose lack of political agenda accommodates whatever feelings one has about the ages-old mystery of why the human race periodically courts self-annihilation.
The viewpoint is far from the front lines — and doesn't get into how a Jewish lesbian such as Stein survived the Nazi occupation in small-town France where she lived. How does life go on? Films from Jean-Pierre Melville's 1949 Le Silence de la mer to Francois Truffaut's 1980 The Last Metro dealt with the subject with similarly deep-simmering intensity. Stein initially seems chatty and nonchalant, discussing shortages of sugar and butter, so that when her prose saunters into bigger revelations, you're more disarmed. One example: Official government pronouncements had so little truth that Stein depended on rumors from her neighbors.
History repeats itself but doesn't teach. Stein makes that point with repeated references to Shakespearean kings waging war against each other. Goebbels underscored that with musical quotations from 17th-century composer Matthew Locke, who wrote incidental music for Shakespeare plays with antique formality and dignity. That wasn't the only reason Tempesta di Mare was on hand. Collage-like juxtaposition is a Goebbels specialty, but here, there was much intermingling in a minimalist-influenced score, but with far longer motifs than Philip Glass and less repetition — much like Stein's prose. Quiet, tension-filled electronic sounds hummed in the background. Bombardment passages had fast, cutting, aggressive gestures and sonic incongruity, including a lost but hysterical harpsichord.
Elsewhere, repeated motifs rushed upward with no place to go. An extended lute solo for Tempesta's Richard Stone tried to tell a story that repeatedly stopped short. One passage was like the main theme of a Bach fugue shorn of all supporting voices. A long trumpet solo recalling Ives' The Unanswered Question ended the piece, but with inflections borrowed from Ravel's Bolero, hypnotically played by trumpeter David Bilger. Trombone solos made Nitzan Haroz a major presence.
Under the precise direction of conductor Anu Tali, performances sidestepped potential emotion so as not to distract from the message. Female instrumentalists doubled as narrators — sometimes speaking and playing at the same time — and their manner respected the reportage of Stein's prose. Best among them was harpist Elizabeth Hainen, whose crisp articulation brought out Stein's musicality without distracting from the meaning. Near the end, players took on what appeared to be meditation bowls, played to create a drone effect not dissimilar to electronic sounds, but with an acoustical warmth — creating a beautiful conclusion to a strangely consoling piece about historic turmoil.