Steve Kelley Sings Bach with Norfolk Chamber Consort

      At Christ and St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Norfolk, Virginia on November 21, 2005, the Norfolk Chamber Consort presented Bach Fest II, the second of their annual all-Bach programs.

      Sonata in G Major for two flutes and basso continuo opened the program. Debra Cross and Joann White played flute and Michael Daniels played cello. Allen Shaffer was at the harpsichord for all three instrumental pieces. The interplay of the two flute lines with the cello line enfolding them both created a breathtaking loveliness.

      Steve Kelley was featured as bass soloist in Cantata 82: Ich habe genug. By placing the musicians in the chancel rather than on the aisle floor (where the instrumental selections were performed) a more open and exciting sound was achieved. Allen Shaffer, co-director of the consort, conducted a superb performance. The story line is about Simeon, who as an old man is finally able to hold the Christ child in his arms after a lifetime of longing to see the Messiah. This fulfillment is voiced with the words "Ich habe genug" (I have enough!). Mr. Kelley's diction was excellent and his voice ranged from a beautiful, soft tenor when he sang of Simeon's falling asleep now that his life is fulfilled, to a dark, powerful bass when the old man demands to know when he can leave this world. In the glorious last section (Aria 5 of this five-part cantata) Mr. Kelley sang "I delight in my death" and the vocal line and Sherrie Aguirre's oboe danced together.

      The program included J.S. Bach's (1685-1750) Sonata in E Major, BWV 1016 played by violinist Yun Zhang in an accurate and well-shaped performance. Here the acoustic space was not kind to Mr. Zhang, absorbing the sweetness of tone and the bite of the treble notes.

      In the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051 the lower strings were featured as Bach wrote it, without violins: Beverly Baker and Jennifer Snyder, viola, Wayne Moss and Sarah Glosson, viola da gamba, Michael Daniels, cello and Christopher White on bass. The music she plays is always reflected on Jennifer Snyder's face and she glowed throughout this piece! The closing Allegro movement was full of fire and the massed low string sounds were very beautiful as was the dialogue of the violas punctuated by the viola da gambas.


Jewish/American Program

      By the time this is published Norfolk Chamber Consort's first program of the 2006-2007 will have occurred but I do want to acknowledge the pleasure we had in their last two programs last season.

      The Jewish/American program on February 13, 2006 at Ohef Shalom Temple opened with Ernest Bloch's (1880-1959) String Quartet No. 2, written c. 1946 while a professor of music at University of California, Berkeley. Bloch was born in Switzerland and studied in Belgium, France and Germany before coming to the United States.

      The musical language is that of the late romantics. According to Peter Gradenwitz in his book The Music of Israel he was a great admirer of Richard Strauss but I hear the same sadness in the opening music as Alban Berg's String Quartet , Op. 3. The pain in Bloch's music is deeper, more profound. The explosive energy in the second movement added to the intensity. The pain is still there in the measured pace of the third movement. The fourth opens with a tortured, kinetic, sometimes acerbic feeling. A labored intensity struggles between accelerating and decelerating tempos that ends in a sort of resolution into a sad beauty reminiscent of the opening. The ending is quiet.

      This music was written at the end of WW II as full knowledge of the devastation of the holocaust came to light. Bloch, who always wrote music of a contemplative mood and with a somber spirit of resignation, distilled the emotions and presented them as music. The quartet, Yun Zhang and Lesa Bishop - violins, Beverly Baker - viola, and Michael Daniels - cello, played masterfully.

      The emotionally profound piece was followed by lighter fare. David Schiff's (b.1945) Divertimento from Gimple the Fool (1975 -1979) uses Jewish folk tunes and Klezmer style themes and was clever and entertaining. Violinist Zhang and cellist Daniels were joined by clarinetist F. Gerard Errante and pianist Charles Woodward to give us a precise, happy romp through village life.

      With Chuck Woodward at the piano, the last set, Broadway Melodies, was sung by bass Christopher Mooney who teaches at Christopher Newport University. It included the often sung Soliloquy from Carousel by Rogers and Hammerstein and songs by Marc Blitzstein. Blitzstein (1905-1964) was active in the New York music scene from the mid 1930s until his death. His name comes up in reading about a period that predates my adult life but his music is seldom performed. Dr. Mooney sang No For an Answer (an anti-war, anti-fascist and pro-labor song), Emily and Penny Candy. This music is devoted to social change and commentary on social issues and is called Agit-prop style for agitation and propaganda. This occurred during a very troubled time in America - the dust bowl, the Great Depression, World War II and a time of rising awareness of the hatefulness of racial discrimination.

      His simple and direct songs, his responsive way of setting American speech, his use of satire and musical quotation caught the attention of Leonard Bernstein who was a senior at Harvard in 1939 when he saw Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. Blitzstein was thirty-four when they met and was an accomplished pianist and singer who knew how to put a song across. His polished professionalism as a composer inspired the fledgling Bernstein. It seems fair to say that Blitzstein reached his full expression in the music of Bernstein. The older man's ruthless honesty about his homosexuality was a challenge for Bernstein according to Humphrey Burton in his biography of Bernstein. After leading a double life Bernstein finally came out in 1976. Although still infrequently performed, Blitzstein's music is heard more often. You can hear some of his music on Dawn Upshaw's CD I Wish it So where you will find the title song and several others by Blitzstein.


Norfolk Chamber Consort's Rachmaninoff and Schubert Program

      Like a breath of fresh air, mezzo-soprano Lisa Coston and pianist Andrey Kasparov offered their audience a brilliant presentation of eight art songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 -1943). He wrote about ninety songs all told. This duo began working together in July to perfect the recital for the November 20, 2006 Norfolk Chamber Consort program held at Chandler Recital Hall. Sung in Russian, a native Russian listener commented that Ms. Coston's singing was without accent, pure Russian. Dr. Kasparov was educated in Russia and the U.S. and both artists are devoted to exceptionally high standards of performance, but more than this, Ms. Coston fell in love with the songs. "They got under my skin." She communicated all the passion of this love in her performance.

      Pairing Schumann and Rachmaninoff is logical since both are composer/pianists and with both the piano is collaborative with the voice in expressing musical material. Rachmaninoff's accompaniments are brilliant and rich in harmonic color and texture. In his songs, Rachmaninoff presents the same spacious lyricism we find in his piano music. Of the eight songs, three were new to me and each has its charm. The Rat Catcher (sung in English translation) is a deeply romantic song of love. The rat catcher plays his pipes "tra-la-la-la" giving joy to all that hear, on his way to exchange rings with his beloved followed by a night of tenderness. Daisies with the power of summer in them makes our singer love all the lovely girls. In The Ring a sweetheart waits for the lover's return. Impatiently she tries to melt the gold ring he gave her in a candle flame so she can forget but the ring only blackens, only to remind her always of him. There was no halfway emotional expression here.

      The familiar pieces from recordings are by male singers except for In the Silence of the Secret Night, Opus 4, No. 3 (1870). René Fleming has recorded it. The singing by Ms. Coston was a rich flowing stream of beautiful sound. The lover calls the name of his beloved in the rich, warm darkness as he cherishes everything about her. From the smoldering energy of Spring Torrents, Opus 14, No. 11 to Lilacs, Opus 21, No. 5, that celebrates the fresh morning air of a sparkling new day when our singer goes out to seek the modest joy of clusters of lilacs, to Oh, do not grieve that gives advice to the departed one to skip grief and join him in the afterlife, the intensity is overwhelming. He took everything from me, Opus 26, No.2, health, willpower, air, sleep and left me only with you, so I still have some reason to worship him. Overheated, perhaps but when music is this well performed by piano and voice it becomes a completely convincing experience.

      On a practical note, I hope Andrey and Lisa will offer a future performance of these songs. A performance of this quality deserves a wider audience.

      A program with a mix of chamber pieces that works this well throughout happens only rarely. The program opened with Three Romances, Op. 94 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) with F. Gerard Errante on clarinet and Oksana Lutsyshyn at the piano. Schumann wrote the first of the three romances on December 7, 1849 for oboe and piano. According to The Grove Dictionary it was a fertile period for him and the completed work was only published years later. Schumann's Andante and Variations in Bb, Op. 46 in its original version, the one presented, is for two pianos (Kasparov and Lutsyshyn), horn (David Wick), and two cellos (Michael Daniels and Rebecca Gilmore). The other instrumental sounds enhance and extend the musical line of the pianos.

      The final piece was Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 for two pianos (1900-01) with sumptuous harmonies and broadly lyrical, often intensely passionate melodies. This music seemed to partake of the idiom of his concertos. Lutsyshyn and Kasparov gave a performance to remember. Accurate notes and precise shaping allowed two independent instrumental lines that go faster and faster to fuse in a grand climax.

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