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Virginia Chorale: À la Française
Sacred Heart Church, October 11, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

In the reverberant acoustics of Sacred Heart Church in Norfolk October 11, the Virginia Chorale presented À La Française, a program of delightful music from the 16th to 20th centuries, from a variety of French-speaking countries.

They began with Margoton Va T’a L’iau (Margoton Went to the Well) a wry little dialogue by Francis Poulenc about a girl who went to fetch water, fell in the well, was pulled out by three handsome lads who expected from her what she had no intention of giving them. It was light and quick and charming.

Next came three 16th-century chansons from around the world. First up was Tant Que Vivray (While I live)” by Claude de Sermisy. In the text, by Clément Marot, the singers tell that as long as they live, they serve love, the powerful king, in words, deeds, song and dance—because love is so good! I recognized it with delight because I had to memorize it in my high school French class, with a slight variation, a long, long time ago and never forgot it.

Mille Regretz (A Thousand Regrets) by Nicolas Gombert was a sad song of lost love, with the Chorale’s voices weaving together and fading out. La, La, La, Je Ne L’Ose Dire (I Shouldn’t Tell/I’ll Tell You Anyway) was a light, quick song about a man with a flagrantly unfaithful wife. Small-town gossip hasn’t changed much in 500 years . . .

Three songs came from the 20th-century French-speaking world. Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge) boasted a text by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, from his collection Alcohol. Once again, love is lost, like the water of the Seine flowing under the bridge—with a nice dissonance underscoring the word “pain”—but the poet remains, as the chorale sings a long floating note.

A traditional folk song from the Auvergne was Le Baylère. The same melody—"Bailéro”—was arranged for soprano and orchestra by Joseph Canteloube. In this lovely arrangement by Goff Richards, the sopranos rise up out of the choral fabric to precise high notes before falling back seamlessly into the choral sound. Tasty stuff!

Haitian-born Sydney Guillaume, who now lives and composes in Los Angeles, wrote Twa Tanbou (Three Drums), whose Haitian Creole text by Louis Marie Celestin sings of a Sunday morning argument between three drums about whose sound was the most beautiful—but when they sang together, the sound was unforgettable. The tricky rhythms were joyful and lilting.

The iconic French singer Edith Piaf’s signature song was La Vie en Rose. Kathryn Kelly was the soloist, who brought a lovely, full, rich voice to the familiar song. The attractive arrangement by Norbert Ortt wasn’t overblown and had a wonderful “la-la” coda.

Frank Martin was a Swiss composer who lived for many years in the Netherlands. He wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir in 1922-24—and then put it away in a desk drawer for 40 years, until around 1962, because it was a matter between himself and God. Its five movements are from the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Mass. The Kyrie began with women’s voices, echoing and overlapping; the second trope was very strong, and the third had rhythmic lightness coupled with a strong vocal sound. The Christe Eleison was a series of variations before returning to a Kyrie that plumbed the heights and depths.

The Gloria built and fanned out, with a nice, almost lilting falling line on “Gratias agimus tibi” and then a beautiful pianissimo “Jesu Christe. “The “miserere nobis” was a passionate plea for God’s mercy. The men began “Quoniam tu solus” (You alone are the Holy One) in unison and were joined by the women’s voices. The spinning out of the last line, “Cum Sancto Spiritus”, led into a simple, effective one-note Amen.

The Credo is the longest movement, packed with text sung fairly straightforwardly. “Et homo factus est” was thoughtful; “Crucifixus etiam” was somber; and the “resurrexit” was light and airy.

The Sanctus was a tapestry of voices, weaving and rising, with an abrupt change of rhythm on “Pleni sunt coeli (heaven and earth are full)” before the repetitions of Hosanna. After the Benedictus, the Hosannas rose again—into sudden quiet. The final movement, Agnus Dei, had a low drone with high voices over it and strange harmonies. The final trope led into an exquisite ending on “pacem” (peace).

Artistic director and conductor Charles Woodward brought out every nuance.

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

À la Française: Virginia Chorale Sings Frank Martin’s Double Choir Mass

First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, October 10, 2015
Review by John Campbell

A single work, Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin (1890-1974) filled the second half of Virginia Chorale’s second program of the season. Written in 1922, Martin’s Mass lay unplayed for forty years. Swiss composer Martin, the tenth and youngest child of a Calvinist minister said of his delay in the 1960s: “I did not want it to be performed...I consider it...as being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.”

At age ten Martin heard Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He was so deeply affected that he decided to devote his life to music. It has been suggested that he may have felt that his music was unworthy of such a high standard.

Hearing the Mass performed so superbly and feeling the experience deeply, I found it necessary to reach out to experts to help describe my experience. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross says “It sounds like a Renaissance mass lost in time, aware nonetheless of long centuries passing and new horrors unfolding.”

The Kyrie opens as the women, unaccompanied, spread their sound like encompassing wings. When the men join in there is a startling sense of open space. High, harsh outbursts of “Kyrie” set the pattern of tension contrasted by a relaxed sound in the lower notes. The Gloria’s stark, somber mood is sublime rather than pretty and fully explores the antiphonal and polyphonic possibilities of two choirs. In its closing, “in gloria dei Patris,” the feeling is one of turning inward, ending with sweet, high notes and a lovely melisma by the sopranos.

The Credo is mostly homophonic carrying the weight of the Christian message using vocal entrances to dramatic effect. The layered, dissonant outbursts of “Crucifixus” by the men adds to the complexity.

The Sanctus movement includes a Benedictus. Both begin with short motives in the men’s voices. In Sanctus, when the women enter with a cross-relation you get a vision of the glory of the eternity they are singing about.

If Martin had sought a performance in 1922 it would have ended here. In 1926 he had added the Agnus Dei. The texture of this section was enthralling, carrying us to the very quiet ending of “dona nobis pacem”—grant us peace—as a blessing to end the concert.

Norfolk Chamber Consort: The Apocryphal J.S.

Christ and St. Luke's Church, October 26, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

Introducing the Norfolk Chamber Consort presentation, The Apocryphal J.S., NCC co-director Andrey Kasparov noted that there were publishers in Bach’s time—but no copyright law. If you bought music, it had been copied by hand. So if a manuscript was in Bach’s handwriting but there was no composer’s name on the score, it might be “attributed” to Bach—which was how 100 to 150 works have been spuriously attributed to Johann Sebastian.

Bach also had 20 children, only ten of whom grew to adulthood. One daughter, Catharina Dorothea, was an accomplished singer, who helped her father with composing chores. Four sons became composers, too: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Bach and Johann Christian Bach. Take the fabled Newman music dynasty of Hollywood and place them in the 17th century—lots of related composers with the same last name—but fortunately protected by copyright law these days.

The concert, in the ringing acoustics of Christ & St. Luke’s Church in Norfolk October 26, began with a performance by organist Kevin Kwan of Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ by Johann Michael Bach. It was followed by what has long been considered a greatest hit by J.S. Bach—In dulci jubilo—now known to have been written by Johann Michael, a cousin of J.S. In 1707 J.S. married Johann Michael's daughter, Maria Barbara, making him J.S. Bach's father-in-law.

Kasparov noted that in their Bach biographies, Spitta and Schweitzer denigrated Telemann's church cantatas while praising works attributed to Bach that have since been shown to be by Telemann. Telemann was a prolific composer, Bach’s friend and godfather to his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel (C.P. E. Bach, for short). His “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” was in five movements, performed by tenor Brian Nedvin with Gretchen Loyola’s clear, straight-toned violin, Oksana Lutsyshyn’s precise harpsichord, Jeffrey Phelps’ cello continuo, David Savige’s subtle bassoon and Kevin Kwan. (The work is listed in both the Bach and Telemann catalogs.) It featured ornamented repeats and elaborate melismas. In one section, the singer “feels” the sufferings of Christ; Nedvin was impassioned without overdoing it.

The Sonata for Flute and Harpsichord in E-flat Major can be found in the Bach catalog, but it’s a sentimental and relentlessly virtuosic chamber work—so more likely C.P.E. Bach than J.S. Bokyung Kim’s flute was soaring and silvery, with Lutshyshyn’s rippling harpsichord.

Lutsyshyn returned after intermission to play Christian Friedrich Witt’s Passacaglia in D Minor; her blazing intensity could burn the notes right off the page.

The Sonata in G Minor—formerly attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach and now attributed to Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach—was beautifully played by Ruth van Baak Griffioen on recorder, blending with Lutsyshyn’s wondrous harpsichord and then soaring up. The final Allegro movement was hypnotic, with a lovely chiff in the recorder.

My soul extols and praises was also formerly attributed to J. S. Bach, but is now attributed to Melchior Hoffmann, who succeeded Telemann and apparently was often mistaken for Bach. Nedvin, Griffioen, Phelps, Kwan, Loyola and Lutsyshyn were joined by Virginia Symphony principal oboist Sherie Aguirre for this charming work. The recitatives were not like chant; rather they were fairly straightforward declarative melodies, alternating with the more difficult arias.

The final offering was Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, unmistakably by Johan Sebastian Bach and superbly played by Kevin Kwan, his feet flying on the pedals as he probed its perpetual motion complexity.

With the exception of Kwan’s organ solos, Kasparov conducted the challenging and varied program with informed verve.

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

VSO: Fountains of Rome

Sandler Center, October 18, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

At their October 18 concert the Virginia Symphony members were crammed onto the stage at the Sandler in Virginia Beach— but the music they produced was worth any discomfort.

In the first half, Ottorini Respighi’s tone poem, The Fountains of Rome, was accompanied by wonderfully evocative black-and-white photographs by David A. Beloff. The four sections, performed consecutively, began with The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn. The music, like falling water, eddied and changed with the photographer’s closeups of the turtle spouts around the circumference of the fountain.

A great, sweeping sound of horns signaled The Triton Fountain in the Morning. Precise percussion, bold brass and two harps evoked Triton blowing a conch shell, from which water spurted; four dolphins formed a central plinth, holding up the sea-god, decorated with the papal beehive headdress and the bees symbolic of the Barberinis.

The Trevi Fountain at Midday is perhaps the most familiar sight, even to those who have not visited Rome— it’s the elaborate main feature in two movies, Three Coins in the Fountain and La Dolce Vita. The central figure is the god Ocean, the personification of the great river around the earth from which flow all the streams. Respighi’s music — and a wonderful tuba— evoked the great flowing cascades of Nicola Salvi’s magnificent design for Pope Clemens XIII.

The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset is calmer, with rounder lines; its water rises from a central globe and flows over the edge of the bowl. The photographer captured the melancholy of leaves in the water; gentle woodwinds captured the elegiac mood. (The last photograph was of Beloff’s shadow on the fountain.) Conductor JoAnn Falletta brought the Virginia-based photographer out for a well-deserved bow.

When composer William Walton was at Oxford, he met the literary Sitwell family; later, Osbert Sitwell created the libretto for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, for chorus, solo baritone and orchestra. The biblical story is taken from the book of Daniel. The Jews were in exile; the arrogant Babylonian king Belshazzar had a great feast for a thousand of his lords, wives and concubines, and commanded the sacred gold and silver vessels from the Jerusalem temple to be handed out to the crowd, who drank from them, praising pagan gods. A hand appeared, writing words on the wall— Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin which was translated: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That night, Belshazzar was slain, and the Jews rejoiced at the fall of Babylon.

The soloist was bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin, who was so elegantly commanding in the Virginia Arts Festival’s April production of Bluebeard’s Castle. His huge voice, which could be heard clearly even against the full chorus at full volume, was no less impressive in this outing, and he maintained the stern look of an Old Testament prophet.

A trombone introduced the words of Isaiah in recitative style by the chorus, with a counterintuitively soft “Howl ye, howl ye.” The plaintive longing of the exiles— “By the water of Babylon . . . we wept”— contrasted with the harshly mocking command, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Austin intoned a text from Psalm 137, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” The chorus answered with the dire threat, “O daughter of Babylon.” Austin, a cappella, sang of the great city of Babylon, cataloging its long list of riches. In describing Belshazzar’s feast, the chorus underscored the sacrilege of using the sacred temple vessels for such a profane event. A brass fanfare preceded Austin’s invocations of pagan gods— the Gods of Gold, of Silver, Iron— with harsh percussion clanking at each element.

As the celebrating pagans, the chorus exulted, “O King, live forever.” Then Austin described the hand that appeared, writing a mysterious message of doom on the wall — and Belshazzar was slain that night. The chorus responded in a joyful, almost Gershwinesque praise of Israel’s God, with blaring trumpets. Suddenly the instruments fell silent, and the chorus was particularly lovely in the section “and the light of a candle shall shine no more.” A chorus of Alleluias, repeated and repeated, soared into a high, explosive ending. The riveting dynamics of both the well-prepared chorus and the well-conducted orchestra were simply stunning.

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

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