by Anthony Tommasini
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The American colonies were not all that George III lost during his long reign on the British throne. He also lost his mind. What this must have been like for him was the focus of an imaginative program that the conductor Jonathan Sheffer devised for the Eos Orchestra on Thursday night at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
The centerpiece of the program was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's 1969 dramatic work for singer and chamber ensemble, ''Eight Songs for a Mad King,'' which takes us, quite viscerally, inside the head of the unhinged monarch. The vocal lines for the soloist portraying the king are not exactly notated. Much of the text (by Randolf Stow) is delivered in Sprechstimme, or speech-song, the vocal technique devised by Schoenberg for ''Pierrot Lunaire,'' clearly a model for Sir Peter's work. Great freedom is allowed the singer, who must do a lot of scooping and shrieking. The bass-baritone Dean Elzinga brought mesmerizing dramatic intensity to his performance.
While the stage was still being set, Mr. Elzinga appeared, looking like some escapee from a mental ward, wearing only a hospital gown, his feet bare, his head shaved, his look an eerie mix of blankness and hostility. Sir Peter's eclectic score keeps shifting styles: skittish 12-tone music, volatile atonality, a ''wrong-note'' Haydnesque piano sonata; mock Baroque opera arias; ''Comfort Ye'' from ''The Messiah'' turned into cocktail lounge piano music. The audience is meant to experience the music as through the malfunctioning brain of the king; and you did with Mr. Elzinga in the role, who sounded by turns like an opera singer, a falsetto crooner, a Tibetan monk and Yoko Ono.
As staged by the director Gregory Keller, the mad king sat crazed atop a pathetic throne (a wheelchair covered with a sheet); sang an elegy to a bedpan full of urine; needled the flutist playing a twittering solo; glared at the percussionist making birdcall sounds; and, in a frenzied fit, grabbed the instrument from the violinist and smashed it to bits. (A junk shop violin is a requisite prop whenever the piece is presented.) This was a shattering performance of a brilliant work.
Because George III was a great patron of music, Mr. Sheffer surrounded the ''Eight Songs for a Mad King'' with works that the king supported and heard in his lifetime. First came the Overture to the opera ''Orione'' by Johann Christian Bach (J. S.'s youngest child), who settled in London and had a great success as a German composer writing Italian operas for English audiences. The concert concluded with Haydn's ''London'' Symphony (No. 104 in D). Apparently the king was so impressed with Haydn, who was making his celebrated visit from Vienna, that he tried to persuade him to stay. Haydn went home.
Both performances under Mr. Sheffer were stylish and buoyant. You could just imagine the king in his clearheaded days relishing the sense of enlightenment, rationality and well being that this music conveys.
As if to reassure us that he had not ruined his robust voice as the mad king, Mr. Elzinga returned for an encore with the orchestra: Handel's ''Comfort Ye,'' this time sung the right way.