An Evening with Composer Jeraldine Herbison

      On November 19, 2005 at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in Hampton, Virginia, composer Jeraldine Saunders Herbison with her cellist husband, James Herbison and a number of talented musical friends gave an extravagant feast of her art songs and chamber pieces. Dr. James Herbison opened the musical program with his wife's composition We Worship Thee Almighty Lord (Melody from 1589) from Favorite Hymn Tunes for Cello. He also played the last note, closing the program with Morning Has Broken (Gaelic Melody), another tune from this set.

      Pianist Oksana Lutsyshyn joined Dr. Herbison on stage to play Spiritual, for cello and piano. Soprano Shelia J. Maye, with Leslie Neal-Douglas at the piano, sang Time Does Not Bring Relief and Night Was Done from Four Sonnets for Soprano and Piano (1977). Time Does Not Bring Relief, places an independent piano part against a firm vocal line. The poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, explores a pain so deep that only resignation, not resolution, is possible. Every moment and every facet of nature reminds her of her lost beloved. Ms. Herbison continues her exploration of human love in Night Was Done with text by Mikhail Kuzmin. Here the couple rose in the morning as if it were an ordinary day, thus blocking out the depth of the ecstasy they had shared in a night entwined. Later in the program Ms. Maye sang Life with cello accompaniment by Dr. Herbison, on a poem by Langston Hughes about the difficulty of climbing the stairs of life. Her very high soprano notes were accurate and very powerful.

      Intermezzo followed with Elaine Swinney on violin and Phyllis Holland-James at the piano. This piece has a modern palette of colors and was beautifully performed. A special treat was hearing the Herbisons playing three of her Six African Lullabies with him on cello and her on viola. They had the relaxed, natural flow of a couple who have spent a lifetime working together. In Nytilo Nytilo (Bird Song) from South Africa we have a lyrical melody that turns back on itself as in a round. Ny Andolo (Sleep) from Kenya follows. Thula Thula (Don't cry baby, don't cry) from the Zulu begins with the tune called on the viola with a response from the cello before they come together in harmony.

      In the second half of the program the couple again performed together, she playing violin in pieces from Six Duos with some of the most intriguing music of the evening. Each piece is less than a minute long and is a tightly constructed musical essay. Winding Tune is a mobius strip with top side joined to underside in a continuous flow. After You is a conversation between violin and cello, each argument is clear but there is no resolution. Skipping Song, written in two different meters which finally merge, reminds me that our composer's music is American in the same way that Charles Ives' music is American. The old trickster Ives would appreciate her clever explorations of what music can do. Perpetual Motion gradually accelerates to end in a presto tempo. According to Ms. Herbison "The speed is achieved by the use of the bow, doubling on triplets, then becoming tremolos. An increase in speed is also facilitated with glissandos."

      Ms. Lutsyshyn played several solo piano pieces during the evening. Her virtuosic playing on Concert Piece No. 1, Prelude and Rondo and on Cello Sonata II, Adagio and Allegro with Dr. Herbison were thrilling to hear. The piano, opening with its French music box sound on treble notes, its Bach-like section interpreted into a modern idiom, its long, lyric cello sections and the intensity that ends with a solemn cello sound demanded much of the artists.

      The longest, most complex art song of the evening was sung by mezzo-soprano Lisa Relaford Coston, accompanied by Ms. Lutsyshyn. The Noise of Waters, with text by James Joyce, opens with the sound of sparkling water meeting stones in the brook bed. The vocal line is as sad as the words: "The gray winds, the cold winds are blowing where I go." These words are repeated until they morph into a mournful vocalise.

      Violist Jena Chenkin played the whimsical piece Of Elves in Moonlight Shadows Seen. Ms. Chenkin returned to the stage later with the Herbisons and Ms. Swinney to play three of Five Vignettes for String Quartet. The composer says "Cakewalk is like a children's play song." Her Ivesian humor sparkles in these happy pieces which seemed both fun to play and to hear.

      Lorraine McFadden Bell, with Ms. Neal-Douglas at the piano, sang four selections from Five Art Songs. There is an excitement and a special quality in Ms. Bell's interpretations that pluck my heartstrings. Included was The Rainy Day with text by Henry W. Longfellow, the source of the famous phrase "Into each life some rain must fall." A List of Things I'll Not Forget with text by Max Ellison, and Love Me Not followed. Last was the short and to-the-point We Met By Chance with words by William Curtis. It tells a story: he needed to communicate, she listened and found pleasure in his words. Our composer sets it with a grace and simplicity that is breathtaking.

      The occasion was the Eighth Annual Margaret Phillips Davis Memorial Scholarship Benefit Concert sponsored by Circle #2 of St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church. The ladies of the Circle, joined by the soloists, string quartet and pianist sang In Our Family, a piece written for the family of Margaret Phillips Davis. At the close of the evening there were flowers for the Herbisons and a $1500 scholarship check for Hampton University string music students and $1500 for the Peninsula Youth Orchestra strings.

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