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The Little Match Girl Passion
Virginia Chorale
Sacred Heart Church, February 8, 2015
Review by John Campbell

I found The Little Match Girl Passion to be emotionally riveting. This was not a comfortable work for all listeners and that is most understandable. Likewise, the first of three selections from the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach, O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden (O head full of blood and wounds) made an immediate emotional impact because Jesus’ pain is there in the music. Though the selection is brief it makes a great impact. By the same measure, the lengthy David Lang (b.1957) piece builds to an unbearable pathos. This can be tough going for listeners; there is just too much depth of feeling offered.

In 1721, in defense of music in the Protestant Church, theologian Gottfried Ephraim Scheibel stated “I do not know why operas alone should have the privilege of squeezing tears from us; why is that not true in the church? John Eliot Gardiner, in his 2013 book, Bach, says “With never an opera to his name, Bach will be the one to work his way towards uncovering and releasing a dramatic potency in music beyond the reach of any of his peers the leading opera composers of his day; and as it turns out, beyond that of any composer until Mozart…”

Pairing music by Bach with Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion was brilliant programming. Following the format Bach used for his St. Matthew Passion, Lang gives a narrative and comments on it. In Lang, washes of sound created moods of pathos, pain, —even the dirge of death, if you will —that slowly build into an almost unbearable experience. A single warmly-clad and shod actor, Caroline Rigby, wandered through the sanctuary—a distraction for those who needed it. Once I realized what was happening, she was easy to ignore and I concentrated on the words in the text and allowed the feeling of the music to fill me completely.

The story is simple—on a very cold day an ill-clad young girl is having no luck selling her matches. She is almost frozen. Even though she is afraid to go home without money, for she knows her father will beat her, she lights a match for warmth. The chorus prays for God’s mercy to no avail.

From this we can surmise that only people can answer the prayer and people were otherwise engaged on this New Year’s Eve. Another lighted match and the girl “sees” her long-departed grandmother in the flame.

It is at this point that Scott Crissman recites the text used by Bach: “From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land…” A soprano vocalise accompanies the text. As she lights the whole bundle of matches “the grandmother” looms larger than ever and whisks her away. Broken phrases, repeated words, then silence relieves the unbearable tension of her death. The final “We sit and cry and call to you. Rest soft, daughter, rest soft" is a mild consolation after ripping us open. It is also a radical message: we must be vigilant to heal the world! But how can we heal the world? A long, stark silence reigned. Finally the audience applauded, then rose.

The music has the ability to bring us to such a stark reality with voice and spare percussion and such beauty. The sensuous music, the repetition of chant-like lines is not so much insistent as it is questing, questioning. Of the occasional percussion by the singers, New Yorker critic Alex Ross writes: “Those noises open a sort of forest space around the voices."

A special thanks to Chuck Woodward and the Chorale for bringing us this masterpiece so soon after it was written.

East Carolina’s Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival Comes to GSA
Robin Hixon Theater, Norfolk, Virginia, February 5, 2015
Review by John Campbell

Artistic Director Ara Gregorian (violinist and conductor) of East Carolina University explained that the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival is designed to give student players and ECU alumni (and when they’re here in Norfolk – GSA students) real life performance experience. Students play side-by-side with professional performers in a chamber music evening concert as the culmination of several days of master classes, chamber coaching and a single rehearsal to prepare for the evening concert.

As part of this outreach initiative, the evening opened with Suite for two Violins and Piano, Op. 71 by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925). Moszkowski, a German-born, Polish-Jewish pianist and composer, was very popular in the era of salon pianism, earning a handsome income. ECU student violinist Mary Katherine Cox joined Ara Gregorian with Keiko Sakino, a fellow faculty member, at the piano. In a Romantic style the violin phrases repeated by the second player became a glitzy chase that became duets while the piano held the great, passionate fun together.

The format was repeated in the Piano Quintet in A Major, D 667 “Trout” by Franz Schubert, movement V, Allegro giusto, which is familiar to PBS-TV fans as the theme music of the British sit com “Waiting for God.” Two ECU students, Ms. Sekino and faculty members—cellist Emanual Gruber and violinist Hye-Jin Kim—gave a bracing performance. I especially enjoyed watching the long, slender and flexible fingers shape the music.

Guest artist violinist Xiao-Dong Wang with Ms. Sekino and Ms. Kim were joined by two ECU students for the very intense movement 1, allegro, of Ernst von Dohnányi’s (1823-1898) Piano Quintet in C minor, No. 1 Op.1. Sarah Cox’s precise violin and cellist Logan Dailey’s lyrical playing gave us rich, moody music. Overwrought passion written as busy passages often turned gentle and lyrical. The ending was an all-out fireworks display.

In the Brahms String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111 Mr. Wang switched to viola, Mr. Gregorian, violin and three Four Season alumni artists rounded out the group. With a meditative beauty that gives way to stirring interplay in fully engaging expression, the two violas (Elizabeth Upson, second) made a memorable impact.

This was followed by movement 1, Allegro con moto, from the String Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 18 by Mendelssohn. The emotional impact of this sweet music felt somber and troubled. An ECU student, Andrew Collins, joined Mr. Gregorian on viola. Faculty, alumni and students from ECU followed with a second Mendelssohn piece, Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, movement 1, Allegro moderato ma con fuoco, which took us to intermission. The symphonic richness of the colors created by expanding the string quartet to eight strings offered an overwhelming beauty in slow, tender sections.

After a brief intermission, some 38 GSA players (13 violins, 9 violas, 12 cellos, 4 basses) joined the 28 ECU students (15 violins, 7 violas, 4 cellos, 2 basses), 4 alumni artists, 6 faculty and guest Xiao-Dong Wang in two pieces by Grieg. The first, an arrangement for string orchestra of Grieg’s String Quaratet No. 1, Op. 27. The logistics of the setup of the room made the intermission necessary. The glorious richness of all these instruments heard in the small room in this exceedingly attractive and untroubled work highlighted the melodic spirit of Grieg’s best songs and piano miniatures. There was overall a sense of mystery. Later, skittering violins set up a sound space in which the cello raises questions, emphatically answered as it ends.

The entire group stayed in place for Holberg Suite, Op. 40, written by Grieg for string orchestra in five movements recalling the dances that might have been popular when poet, playwright and philosopher Baron Ludwig Holberg was alive (1684-1754). Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway as was Grieg. The piece was written to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Holberg who lived in the late Baroque period. Conductor Ara Gregorian commented that this was the largest group of strings ever for the Holberg Suite. Indeed, sitting at the edge of these wonderful, young performers was thrilling. Guest Artist Xiao-Dong Wang played viola. The Praeludium had a simple radiance in a gently skipping motif. By contrast the Sarabande is soberly reflective but always elegant. We were cradled and cherished in a lush fullness of strings. The Gavotte was built on a Bach-like structure with a repeated cello phrase. This gives way to Aria, like a long breath inhaled, held, then exhaled, exquisitely reenergized by the coordinated singing tone of the many cellos. The finale, Rigaudon, was a bright, lively country dance, pure and natural in feeling.

What marvelous, real-life experience for developing, young musicians!

Symphonicity presents an All-Mozart Afternoon
David S. Kunkel conducts Orchestra and Chorus of 108 Voices
Sandler Center, Virginia Beach, February 22, 2015
Review by John Campbell

In a program titled All Amadeus, Symphonicity, the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach, offered a well-played selection of Mozart’s finest music. This is Symphonicity’s 34th season as a group of volunteer, avocational musicians led by Founding Conductor Kunkel. The orchestra has grown from a modest group of volunteers in 1981 to a professional quality orchestra as this program demonstrated.

Opening, as every Symphonicity program does, with The Star Spangled Banner, we then heard the ever ebullient Overture to Don Giovanni. In Mozart’s time an opera was an excuse for social merriment and an overture (literally “opening”) of a few loud chords was to get the audience’s attention, quelling conversation. Gradually these chords grew into a self-contained movement followed by a quieter section and a final loud piece in rapid tempo to gin-up excitement as the rise of the curtain approached.

Don Giovanni tells a tragic tale, with its hero pulled down to hell by a statue come-to-life at the end. Though classified as a comic opera, the composer’s mood-setting music opens with ominous use of brass and drums full of foreboding which is swept away by a brilliant, exuberant depiction of the virility of the seductive Don. Mozart himself wrote the ending we heard so that the overture could be used as a concert piece.

The “Jupiter,” Symphony No.41 in C major, KV 551 from 1798 was Mozart’s last. At age 25 he arrived in Vienna where he became acquainted with a wealthy music amateur, Baron van Swieten, who admired Bach and Handle. As Mozart re-orchestrated and conducted their choral and orchestral works for his new patron, the greatness of these two masters became apparent to him. Mozart’s enthusiasm for counterpoint is especially apparent in this paradigm of Classical symphonic form: four movements—the first and last with quick tempo, the second slower and the third a minuet with trio. There are unexpected pauses in the dynamic flow in the first movement; in the second serene quietude gives way to great restlessness with rhythmically insistent minor-key episodes. The Minuet, third movement, has a graceful tone with an earthy dance in the trio with sudden tutti (whole orchestra) outbursts. The last movement has an extraordinarily complex fugue that brings together all the previous themes simultaneously. The texture becomes denser and more complicated until, at last, one theme takes command, and with a flourish, brings the Jupiter to a triumphant close.

Intermission ended as some 108 singers from Symphonicity Chorus (Chorus Master Deborah Carr, Accompanist Sylvia Chapa) and 60 singers of Old Dominion University Concert Choir (Director Dr. Nancy Klein) filed on stage for Requiem in D minor, K 626. Conductor Kunkel soon arrived with soloists: soprano Del Fionn Sykes, contralto Kelly Montgomery, tenor Brian Nedvin and bass Branch Fields—recently seen as Second Soldier in Virginia Opera’s Salome. Mozart died before he could complete a commission for his Requiem. The opening Introit (Grant them eternal rest) is the only section that Mozart completed with opening phrases in imitative counterpoint. The intonation of the chorus was excellent, enthusiastic and focused. The moderate tempo chosen had a natural momentum. Mozart had also sketched out the Kyrie, Sequentia and Offertorium but the orchestration was incomplete. The choral writing drives the music and the four soloists rarely sing alone. The darkly colored orchestra supports the choir with vivid motives. This pictorial aspect is most evident in the Sequentia: “Tuba mirum," “Rex tremendae” (regal dotted-rhythms and rich, full choral singing), “Confutatis” (fiery accompaniment) and “Lacrimosa” (sighing strings) where the choral sound swells into a grand “Amen.”

There are unsolved mysteries of the Requiem’s composition and even of its authenticity. We know that the Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus and Communio were written by the hand of Franz Süssmayr. Did he mishandle Mozart’s intention? There is no way to know with current scholarship but what we do know is that this music has reached iconic status. Something in its subtlety and gravitas touches us and it was all there in this performance.

Ms. Montgomery’s open sound in the Benedictus was joined by the whole quartet and Mr.Field’s bass tone was so very sweet and in the Agnus Dei they all were superb together.

An Evening of Mostly Music by Gabriel Fauré at Virginia Wesleyan College
Piano Trio in D, Two Songs and Requiem
Hofheimer Theater, March 9, 2015
Review by John Campbell

The Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) Requeim at 30 plus minutes does not offer a full program. The pieces paired with the Requiem were the musical high points of the evening.

The redoubtable Lee Jordan-Anders on piano was joined by major local musicians Paul Kim on violin and Jeffrey Phelps on cello for Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120, written after Fauré was forced into retirement in his mid-70s when he was almost completely deaf. The two melodies in the first movement—Allegro ma non troppo—wavering between elegy and lament, receive a usual exposition and contrapuntal development. The themes are passed among the three instruments. There are rushes of melody that intensify near the end.

The edgy, second movement —Andantino—was romantic but with unanswered questions: lambent lyricism shared by violin and cello is answered by a piquantly harmonized heart-stopping melody on piano. The interplay spins a delicate, exquisitely modulated, deep, pathos.

In conversation, cellist Phelps told us he was left wondering what Fauré was up to in the third—Allegro vivo—movement with a quirky tune that bounds along with great vigor. “The energetic finale features the strings in unison followed by ascending flourishes on the piano—a frantic race to the finish” says Lee Jordan-Anders in her helpful historical notes. The trio played with joyous engagement in this almost never-heard piano trio.

Once soprano Billye Brown Youmans stepped on stage, she transformed into the complete French singer: her poise, stance, look and sound were utterly French as she sang two of Fauré’s more well-loved songs.

Told from the man’s point of view, Les Roses d’Ispahan (1884) is an exotic French melodie that blends fascination with things Oriental and classic symmetry of form. This is sensual music, sweet but unsentimental. The scent of the rose is less fresh than his beloved’s breath. Her lips and soft laughter are lovelier than the sound of rippling water. And yet the charms of nature are more certain than her fickle love. As the story ends he yearns for the return of her youthful love.

The second selection began with a mischievous twinkle in Ms. Youman’s eye. In Mandoline Fauré places a graceful figure in the piano accompaniment to suggest the mandolin player. The song sets a scene of young blades and elegantly clad young women whirling in ecstasy in a moonlit garden. The singing is engaging because the singer is completely present in the story she sings. She convinced us that she “owns” these songs.

In his notes for the Requiem, Conductor Michael-John Trotta says he aimed to present the Requiem in a form as close to Fauré’s original as possible, a more intimate concept of the work. The chorus included some 60 voices: the Wesleyan Singers and the Virginia Children’s Chorus Chamber Singers (their most advanced group). They were accompanied by a chamber orchestra of violin, two violas, two cellos, French horn, organ and piano.

Written originally in 1887-88, Fauré said he wanted his Requiem to be different from most, and the result is a calm, quiet work with none of the grandiloquence of Berlioz or Verdi and no raging Dies Irae. His message, Fauré said, was “happy deliverance, not mournful passing.” The original performance, in a Paris church, had only five movements—no Offertoire, no Libera me—scored for mixed choir, organ, harp, tympani, violas and cellos, double bass and piano. Children took the soprano choral parts and a boy soprano sang the Pie Jesu.

The well-trained students gave Conductor Trotta the singing he asked for. The musicians were first rate and in such an intimate hall, where a whisper can be heard, restrained singing can generate excitement. But it did not happen; tightly controlled dynamics never allowed the music to soar or offer joy.

The central part of the seven movements, the Pie Jesu for solo soprano was sung by a few high soprano voices contrasted by the deep string tones and came across as anemic and painfully slow. Remember, Fauré’s premier used a boy soprano. At the beginning things had looked hopeful when the a cappella chorus in the Offertoire broke into parts, weaving together the text with occasional deep accents and ending with the only “Amen” in all the movements.

In one of two brief violin phrases, Paul Kim’s violin on “Hosanna in excelsis” (Sanctus) offered a glimmer of excitement. This performance fits well with Dr. Trotta’s aesthetic. Readers may recall my guarded enthusiasm for his choral writing in the January 15, 2015 review of his CD. This performance confirmed his desire to offer pale, quiet, controlled singing.

This was not the music written by Fauré. This was not the music written by Fauré! Thought not credited in the program, after some investigation we discovered that it was arranged by John Rutter. In the past we have found that Rutter’s pop, choral sound has always been emotionally accessible.

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