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Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Chamber Music Recital
Stephen Coxe and Friends
Christ and St. Luke’s Church, Norfolk, December 8, 2014
Review by John Campbell

In an age where there is instant communication world-wide with smart phones and virtual this and that, Stephen Coxe has shaped a live-music, mobile salon that brings listeners and performers together in various venues, sometimes at ODU’s Chandler Hall, last spring at a Baptist church in Virginia Beach and most recently in the beautiful Gothic interior of Christ and St. Luke’s. But wherever the salon meets there are always unusual musical treats, some of which are his own compositions, others by Britten, Poulenc, mostly 20th century composers.

Kevin Kwan opened the program with the Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Preamble for a Solemn Occasion (1949). The great rumble of the organ soon became a probing gentle tune—thoughtful with building dynamics followed by a bright muscular ending. Dr. Kwan is organist and director of music at Christ and St. Luke’s and a dynamic musical force in the community.

By sitting near the front one could imagine oneself in a large living room where a lovely violin/piano collaboration unfolded. Pianist Coxe and violinist Pavel Ilyashov demonstrated a synergistic rapport in Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major Op. 78 (1880), movement 1 – Vivace ma non troppo by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). There was passion in their playing in this gloriously lyrical work with long-breathed melodies and dotted rhythms.

Contralto Kelly Montgomery sang the premiere of Stephen Coxe’s composition A Clear Midnight (2014) (In memory of Lee Teply). The a cappella opening line by Walt Whitman—”This is thy hour, O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless” was followed by the piano accompanied “Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done.” The powerfully repeated last phrase was followed word-by-word in a meditative slow pace. The last words “Night, sleep, death and the stars” left room for tears in the silence that followed.

Remaining at the piano, Dr. Coxe was joined by his co-musical conspirator Jeffrey Phelps, with his cello in hand. They played Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) Louange à l’Éternité de Jesus (Eulogy to the Eternity of Jesus) featuring an infinitely slow and majestic solo in this movement from Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) (1940). The piece continued the meditative, somber mood with music that seems stationary in time, holding this listener in awe with its mood of catatonic anxiety. He wrote the piece for himself and three fellow prisoner-musicians for the only instruments available while in a German prison camp during WWII. After the performance the Germans listed the 4 players as “musician soldiers.” The German bureaucracy took this to mean non-combatant bandsmen and released them back to France.

Once again at the organ, Kevin Kwan closed the first half with another piece by Messiaen, Dieu parmi nous (God with us), the closing section from La Nativié du Seigneur (The Lord’s Nativity) (1935), the subtle and only connection to Christmas in this December concert. Though on page the music is seems dominated by melodic concerns within a careful texture (musicologist John Wilson’s words), the work turns out to be flashes of color and light—fireworks in actual performance. Clearly articulated and with breathtakingly quick passages in contrast to the intimate organ we heard earlier, the organ sound was grand, remote, impersonal, attempting to evoke awe of the divine. Offering a great emotional release seems to be Messiaen’s intention for the closing section of The Lord’s Nativity.

No program organized by Stephen Coxe would be complete without music by Dubussy or Ravel. The last half offered music by both, a special gift for lovers of French music. Together again, violinist Pavel Ilyashov and pianist Coxe played Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917). This sonata was one of a projected series of six chamber sonatas and was the third and last completed. The opening notes create a musical space with a broad melodic flavor that blends elements of mainstream chamber music and Gypsy violin. There were plucked strings in the second movement that moves with ease between joking, playful and improvisatory sections while the piano offers a steady, even foundation. In the third section Debussy displays a lifetime of developed instrumental colors. Opening with an explosion of unaccompanied violin, an incessant stream of sixteenth notes suspended only a few times for dramatic effect in the piano with glistening parallel lines in both instruments together. There is an abstract clarity in this his final piece before he succumbed to cancer at age 55.

The last piece, Chanson Madécasses (Songs of Madagascar) (1926) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) offered the luxury of a chamber performance of songs usually accompanied by piano only. This was mezzo-soprano Suzanne Oberdorfer’s first excursion into this repertory. Patti Watters accompanied on flute, Jeff Phelps on cello and Stephen Coxe, piano. In an ecstatic love song, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove! , the singer, the beautiful Nahandove’s lover, waits for the return of his beloved in a warm, exotic setting of woods, flowers, birds and moonlight. The voice is so soft in its longing that it becomes an instrument with the others.

The second, Méfiez-vous des blancs (Do not trust the white man) is a song of protest and contains a frightful warning: “Do not trust the white men, dwellers of the shore.” The history recounted is of the people regaining their freedom. This fear of losing their freedom again was given powerful voice by Ms. Oberdorfer until the final caressing “Awa” which sounded like a resolution.

The concluding Il est doux de se coucher (It is sweet to rest) is from a male perspective, given voice by a female singer. This could be said of the entire cycle. The sense of repose on a hot summer afternoon while he lies under a leafy tree and invites women to sing, dance and tell amusing stories was captured as exotic, sensuous colors created by the instruments, the voice being the main one. This was Ms Oberdorfer’s first public performance of these songs and I would urge her to an even more passionate reading when she repeats them in a planned February recital. I plan to be there to hear her new insights as the songs settle into her voice.

The complete cycle, sung by Medeleine Grey with Ravel conducting from the piano can be found on YouTube.

TRDance Fall Concert
TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center
November 14, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

Arts budgets being what they are, dance companies don’t often get the chance to dance to live music. But on a cold November 14, TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center was the hot place to be. The Fall Concert of Todd Rosenlieb Dance was bookended by live music—not only live, but the dancers were performing on the same stage as the musicians, and interacting with them.

First up was a charming, cheerful realization of the beloved Liebeslieder Waltzes by Brahms. Lee Jordan-Anders and Chuck Woodward played piano four hands, while a quartet of singers directed by Alan Fisher sang the text from the right rear part of the stage. The singers were miked, which unfortunately threw the blend completely off and made baritone Joshua Grant nearly inaudible.

The dancers, however, were in fine form. Rosenlieb’s choreography asked for everything from balletic leaps to modern somersaults, and a wonderful circle dance in bright yellow light—just the thing to chase away the winter blues. Ricardo Melendez’s simple green, blue or orange un-fussy dresses for the women were just right, with the colors shifting in the changing light. Guest artist Reigner Bethune, returning to the company where he had danced for two years, had precise, elegant feet needing little in the way of position adjustments— “catlike” is the word.

Escape Velocity usually means the speed at which an object can break loose from gravitational pull—think space shots. But it’s also a song by British electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers, whose lyrics repeat the phrase “lifting me highyo—your love is lifting me high.” On the dark stage, in eerie green light, eight dancers in dark tee shirts and pants of different lengths threw out dizzying turns and unusual combinations. Nicolai McKenzie’s leaps were dazzling. At the end, the stage went completely black, prompting whoops of appreciation from the largely young audience.

Apartment No. 9, Starrene Foster’s choreography to the recorded music of Dorian Wood, put eight black-clad dancers together with two straight-backed wooden chairs, in constantly shifting combinations under bare light bulbs hanging overheard that they turned on and off for each song. The dancers came together and pulled away, like magnets attracting and repelling each other, making visible the tensions of the sometimes painful, sometimes bluesy songs.

For me, the pièce de résistance was the final work, “Curves and Lines, a Cello Sings,” choreographed by Ricarado Melendez. Cellist Jacob Fowler, who joined Virginia Symphony four years ago, had wanted to collaborate on a piece with dance. When he found the Suite for Solo Cello by Spanish cellist and composer Gaspar Cassadó, with movements based on three Spanish dances, Fowler brought it to Melendez—and the result was spectacular.

Fowler played in the middle of the stage as the dancers swirled around him. The three principals— Caitlin Cooley, Carmen Schoenster and Janelle Spruill—had long, lean, dramatically embellished outfits with earth-toned skirts that iridesced in the changing light and flared out. (Melendez designed them to keep from hitting the cellist.) The other dancers were in black and grey tanks and shorts—the “lines” against the cello’s curves, bringing to life the cello’s eerie high harmonics. In the second movement, the cello indeed sang sweetly, and at one point was plucked like a guitar—fascinating. As Fowler played the jota rhythms of the final movement, the ensemble’s lines and shadows, movement and stillness, created riveting patterns of motion.

I’d go see it again in a New York minute.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Falletta & Buechner
Regent University Theater, November 15, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

Imagine Salvador Dali in Brazil, and you’ve got a pretty good feel for Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), the joyfully expressive work by Darius Milhaud that opened the Virginia Symphony program November 15 at the Regent University Theater. Its French composer had traveled extensively in Brazil and quoted freely from its lively folk dances, roaming from key to key, setting multi-rhythmic melodies at odds with each other, as in an absurdist dream. Conductor JoAnn Falletta “danced” on the podium, bringing out wonderful brass and woodwinds and a nice viola melody with infectious Latin rhythms. The work was originally written for a Charlie Chaplin movie that never came off—but the sparkling music lives on.

The soloist for the Concerto No. 1 in E Minor by Chopin was pianist Sara Buechner. As the orchestra began the first long movement, she sat quietly, hands moving on her knees—into the music before she ever started playing, then lifting her hands to the keyboard for declarative chords and ripples of descending arpeggios, her blonde, candyfloss hair bouncing with emphasis. Playing from memory— she has more than 100 concertos in her repertoire—she evoked a stronger, more muscular Chopin than we usually think of— at great speed, with forceful pedaling. The second movement, Romanze, was slower, with quiet, dreamlike delicacy, ending in a breathless hush.

The Rondo was bright and cheerful, with Buechner bouncing up and down on the bench, feet flying on and off the pedals— she’s a very physical player who uses her whole body to play, not just her hands. Falletta led the orchestra in bright, intelligent dialogue with the solo piano.

Buechner’s encore was a complete change of pace: a snazzy, jazzy arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Do, Do, Do,” after which the smiling orchestra members were on their feet.

Closing out the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, which launched Beethoven on the Viennese music scene. Haydn was already there, the foremost composer of his day, and Beethoven, like Mozart, was influenced by him. The young Beethoven had already written many works, but this first symphony declared him a composer to reckon with.

The first movement had a slow introduction, with rhythm forming the basis of melodic and harmonic motion, closing with declarative chords in basses and cellos. The second movement—Andante cantabile con molto—used unusual emphases in the violins and low strings, then woodwinds, in triple rhythm—very transparent, and very, very nice.

The Menuetto wasn’t what one thinks of as a minuet, all tinkly tinsel, but more of a gallop, with both delicacy and power, and intense strings. In the final movement, Adagio—Allegro molto e vivace— fragments of phrases were repeated and augmented, with bright, cheerful rhythms.

The program was well-suited to Regent’s theater, which is much smaller than Chrysler Hall. This creates a more intimate experience with the music—and I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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