Stephen Coxe and Friends in Recital
Featuring Anna Feucht, Sondra Gelb, Kathryn Kelly, Jeffrey Phelps
Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church, May 21, 2016
Review by John Campbell

This was one of an ongoing series of concerts and recitals organized by composer, pianist, teacher and promoter of live classical music, Dr. Stephen Coxe. With an audience a bit shy of 100, there were adult students of contralto Sondra Gelb, members of the Virginia Opera Chorus, GSA and ODU students of Dr. Coxe and Mr. Phelps, a host of collaborators of earlier programs in the series and many listeners unwilling to miss a single program organized by Stephen Coxe. His repertory often includes music rarely or never heard locally.

Usually he offers brief piano pieces as part of each concert. The first pieces for solo piano played by Coxe were by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). They were two selections from Album d’un voyageur, S. 160, written in 1855. Années de Pèllerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) offers impressions of Switzerland. La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (The Chapel of William Tell) has a moody, dramatic series of stirring chords carefully spaced to make a dramatic impact, then the listener is gentled down, only to be roused again by a grand conclusion. By contrast, Au Lac de Wallenstadt (At Lake Wallenstadt) reflects a bucolic, peaceful scene mirrored in the water. There is sometimes a feeling of sadness but mostly it is just peaceful until it fades away.

On solo cello, Jeffrey Phelps played Stephen Coxe (b.1966) Memoria for Solo Cello (1997). The far off sound of a long past event was found in the cello voice. It was a sweet experience. This was followed by soprano Anna Feucht singing Coxe’sLilium floruit (A Lily has Blossomed) (2002) with a 12th century anonymous text from Notre Dame Cathedral. With Coxe at the piano the medieval, religious imagery is exquisite even in translation: “...a shepherd, having assumed the mantle of flesh, and by the mysterious cross, crushed the face of the demon, bringing remedy to us.” The lovely, flowing sound in the voice brought the text vividly alive.

Soprano Kathryn Kelly, voluptuous in a pale green knee-length dress, with Coxe at the piano, sang the six song Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs) cycle by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The texts are by Paul Verlaine from 1874 and are Debussy’s first important set of mélodies blending subtle musical responses to poetry. The songs have an old-fashioned, illusive sense, both intimate and sensual. C’est l’extase longoureuse (It is ecstasy) is about two lovers at one with nature and each other. The opening bars mirror the languorous fatigue of after-love. Throughout the cycle texts are underscored and highlighted by the piano as the two meld into one.

In Il pleure dans mon coeur (It’s raining in my heart) is sad for the sake of sad. Ms. Kelly highlighted the sad vulnerability of the singers in L’ombre des arbres (The shadow of trees). In contrast, the ringing piano setting in a gay mood of Chevaux de bois (Wooden horses) talks about music and the kaleidoscope of children of all colors intoxicated by the turning of the carousel. Green is a dream of x-rated loveliness after rapture and Spleen offers perfection followed by the fear of the loss of it. The singer is weary of everything except her lover.

Benjamin Britten wrote the song cycle A Charm of Lullabies in1947 after assembling a horrific group of poems by English luminary poets from earlier centuries. With Stephen Coxe at the piano, Sondra Gelb sang the five texts, beginning with William Blake’s (1757-1827) A Cradle Song which sees a sweet baby in context: “...O! The cunning wiles that creep in thy little heart asleep…” The Highland Balou by Robert Burns (1759-1796) offers images of sweet, wee Donald growing-up to be a highland thief but always coming home to his mother. Sephestia’s Lullaby by poet Robert Greene (1558-1592) has the mother comforting the baby on her knee most dramatically: “When thou art old there’s grief enough for thee.” The father is joyous but soon abandons his little family. Charm is an attack on a restless child by Thomas Randolph (1605-1635) who threatens the child until it is hysterical by the end of the song. The set wraps -up with The Nurse’s Song by John Philip (fl.1560). The nurse is duty-bound but not the coddling type. With a surprising snarly sound, the stark terror of the text was so well expressed by Ms. Gelb in her unnervingly powerful performance. Steve Coxe’s piano underscored the dire drama.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119 (1949). Andante grave opens with a deep growl of low cello notes while the piano occasionally offers a gentle little tune. Now plucked strings played roughly offer crisp modern tonal music on the French spectrum. Quick moody cello at fades faintly away while the second theme later in the movement is a stunning, voluptuous melody - rich, full and exceedingly flexible.

In the Moderato movement the piano gets the first word in a bouncing, energetic tune while the cello enriches like a strummed but later plucked guitar. It is fun, like a children's game or a superbly smooth dance.

Allegro ma non troppo is tuneful and complex - lots of sound for two instruments, all with lively energy. It is music that grew out of Russian history, owing a debt to Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky but also offering the easy gracefulness of Haydn and the impish rhythms that are unmistakably Prokofiev.

This performance of the Sonata was even more engaging than their earlier one at Christ and St. Luke’s Church on February 4, 2016. That performance was part of Jeffrey Phelps’ birthday concert titled Two Sonatas / Six Cakes. That concert also included Samuel Barber (1920-1981) Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6 with the fine pianist Lee Jordan-Anders ringing piano tones and stately energy.

Stephen Coxe and Musical Friends in Recital
Chandler Hall, January 31, 2017
Review by John Campbell

As usual, composer/pianist/impresario Stephen Coxe's faculty recital was a multifaceted musical evening that offered great pleasure. Dr. Coxe opened the evening at the piano with La Cathédrale angloutie (1910) from Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Preludes. The slow introduction section became rich and complex. In the fine acoustic space the deliberate and intense playing was vivid, almost as if we were inside the piano.

The 20-member Old Dominion University Diehn Chorale, conducted by Dr. Nancy Klein, sang Trois Chansons d'hiver (2016) by Stephen Coxe (b. 1966). The first of the three songs of winter, Rêvé pour l'hiver (Arthur Rimbaud) is gentle and nostalgic, a dream of a winter railroad trip of mad kisses and the dark monstrosities of the season—evening shadows and black devils and black wolves and a black spider that ran around her neck and had to be found by him.

L'ombre des arbres (Paul Verlaine) offers the somber beauty of the shadow of trees over a misty river that fades like smoke while doves in the trees lament over drowned hopes. The third song, Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain (Charles d'Orlèans, 1394-1465)—“why here but not for the others”—lightens the wintry gloom of the others in a madrigal choral setting. Winter, you're nothing but a villain suggests we send winter into exile. Now who could disagree with that? The Diehn Chorale was excellent!

This was followed by a standard in clarinet repertory, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Leonard Bernstein (1942) with Virginia Symphony's Patti Carlson and Coxe at the piano. It is described in the program as the sound of an edgy, buoyant, youthful Bernstein combined with a mid-twentieth century American lyricism and nostalgia. It opened with driving rhythms. There was a probing, searching feeling that settled into a smooth, jazz clarinet and a cheerful piano tune. In the third movement there is a yearning cry in the clarinet while the soothing, coloristic piano holds things together in a fleet ending.

By contrast, the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079 (1747) by J.S. Bach offered lovely, sublime writing. The vigorous tempos and polished playing of flutist Wayla J. Chambo, violinist Paul S. Kim, cellist Jeffrey Phelps and Steve Coxe at the harpsichord was magical. The music came to be written when Carl Phillip Emmanuel (C.P.E.) Bach arranged for his father (J.S. Bach) to meet his boss, Frederick II of Prussia (“Frederick the Great” 1742-1786). Frederick was an amateur transverse flute player and gave Bach senior a theme for improvisation. Bach improvised a three-voice fugue on the spot. Challenged by the monarch to do a six-voice fugue, Bach said he would need to work-up a score. Back at home in Leipzig he did just that, “reworking the King's theme in all manner of contrapuntal complexity and virtuosity” that included the Trio Sonata from this gift to Frederick, now known as “The Musical Offering.”

A new work by Stephen Coxe, Sweetest Love, I Do Not Go (2016) is the setting of a poem by John Donne (1572-1631) and was dedicated to the performers of this world-premiere, soprano Bianca Hall and violinist Paul Kim. With text in hand I carefully followed the words of longing and separation and listened to the separate violin voice that carries the same feeling of longing. Was the lack of contact between the two voices a live demonstration of the pain embodied in the text? The performers were excellent but the experience left my friend Wendy cold and me baffled.

George Crumb (b. 1929) Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) came as his response to hearing a recording of the calls of humpback whales. The music offers a dramatic and primal sound projecting a sense of vastness and timelessness. An introductory Vocalise (...for the beginning of time) on flute (Chambo) led into Sea Theme played in a high-register on cello (Phelps). The variations that followed are titled after geological eras in a time-line order from the distant past to the present. Crumb offers a profound expression of the progress of life over eons of time focused on the “sea.” The extended techniques demanded of each performer were beautifully realized in their performance. All instruments were amplified to enhance effects that included singing into the flute, novel plucking and bending and harmonic effects on the cello, and for the pianist (Coxe), playing strings inside the instrument, both with hands and prescribed devices. This amplified strumming inside the piano gave an ethereal, timeless feeling.

The final section, Sea Nocturne (...for the end of time), brings together the three players in an elaborate, romantic unfolding of the Sea Theme, where the timeless, vastness of life on earth continues outward in quiet tranquility. Altogether this piece was a stunning high point that I will carry with me always.

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