Concert of Parlor Songs at Virginia Wesleyan College
Hofheimer Theater, November
It was a sweet evening. How could it not be when the recital
was titled Home Sweet Home and had five of Hampton Roads' finest performers
and was hosted by Dwight Davis whose "From the Parlor" radio program is a long-time,
popular Sunday afternoon feature on WHRO-FM.
The quartet of singers opened
with Home Sweet Home, written in 1829 by Henry Bishop (1786-1855). With
Charles Woodward at the piano, soprano Georgeanne Paddock, mezzo-soprano Lisa
Relaford Coston, tenor Kerry Jennings and baritone Christopher Mooney regaled
the audience with some mighty four-part harmony. The music carried us back to
a time when there was a piano in the parlor and people gathered to share music.
A daughter was given piano lessons and if you were fortunate she had a good voice.
Musical intensity built as Mr. Jennings sang Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) Serenade.
Translated into English, this German art song had become widely popular in America.
A moment of nostalgia for me was a duet by Gigi Paddock and Lisa Relaford Coston
singing Whispering Hope (Alice Hawthorne, 1827-1902) my favorite church
song when I was ten. It was just so powerfully exciting when the voices blended
on the chorus. There were solos, duets and quartets, all done with a decorous
restraint in songs that, at least with some, could easily slide into parody and
overstatement. The emotionally valid interpretation and the camaraderie of the
performers gave the evening a warm glow.
"I thought I saw Susanna dear,
a-coming down the hill, the buckwheat cake was in her mouf, de tear was in her
eye," and so goes Oh! Susanna from 1848 by Stephen Foster (1826-1864),
the poster-boy for American popular song. Oh! Susanna was written for a
minstrel show, only to become the marching song of the "forty-niners" on their
way to search for gold in California. In the second part of the program this song
ended a medley of Foster selections: Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair
followed by Chuck Woodward rocking out on Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky
Home and Beautiful Dreamer, presented in all their glory by the quartet.
They were followed by an audience singalong that included several songs that were
taught to me by my grandfather: In the Good Old Summer Time (1902, George
Evans) Daisy Bell, better known as Bicycle Built for Two (1892,
Harry Dacre), Grandfather's Clock (1876, Henry C. Work), Carolina in
the Morning (1922, Walter Donaldson) and a dozen others.
There are many
CD's of this repertory. An excellent introduction with tenor John Aler and pianist
Grant Gershon on Delos DE 3181 called Songs We Forgot to Remember includes
several selections we heard: A Perfect Day by Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1962-1946),
Kashmiri Song with poetry by Lawrence Hope set by Amy Woodforde-Finden
(1860-1919) and The Lost Chord by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), a total
of twenty-five selections in all.
James Piano Quartet
Virginia Wesleyan College
On Friday evening, April 17, 2009 the James
Piano Quartet, founded by violist Joseph J. Nigro came to Hofheimer Theater to
give a recital of music by Mozart, Honegger and Taneyev. Currently in residence
at Sweetbriar College, the group has a repertory of popular chamber works, lesser
known works and new works they commission. The group will collaborate with New
York composer Noelle Wallach in 2009-2010 performing music written for them.
Violinist Jana Ross joined Mr. Nigro in the first selection Duo in G K.
423, mostly written in Salzburg in the summer of 1783 by W.A. Mozart (1756-1791).
The two independent musical lines meld playfully. The instrumental tones are sweet
and the communication between the players was excellent. The beautifully open
sound of the violin went on its way, though a dissonance is sometimes created
by the viola in the allegro first movement of this sunny, elegant music. The adagio
that follows begins with a somber mood but soon, as if the sun came out, the joy
comes flooding into this short movement. The rondo, circle of recurrence, movement
is of brilliant instrumental sound that remains as the tempo accelerates. There
is a momentary pause and the theme recurs with a sweet embrace of lines and eye-to-eye
communication from our happy, committed performers.
After the applause
died down, Mr. Nigro waved the pianist Nicholas Ross onto the floor, while Mrs.
Ross took a seat with the audience. Sonata for Violin and Piano #28 by Arthur
Honegger (1892-1955), a Swiss born French composer and a member of Les Six, was
written in 1920. By way of introduction, Mr. Nigro told us that the quartet is
working on a recording of Honegger's complete chamber music. Though challenging
for the players, the audience will hear only pleasant melodies. If you take piano
music by Satie, slow it down, add a large measure of sadness in an angular solo
line interspersed with phrases on the viola, you will have an idea of how Honegger
sounds. In the andante vivace movement a fractured duet follows. His musical language
is very French but Impressionism has given way to the pain of life post World
War I. The allegro moderato section has a somber piano solo that gives way to
joy. The viola calls us back into gloom. The ending just dies away. The allegro
non troppo is a duet tune that marches along. Dynamic viola phrases blend with
continuing piano - a dance of sorts but the heaviness never completely goes away.
Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) was Tchaikovsky's favorite composition student at the
Moscow Conservatory (1866-1875) and a noteworthy pianist who gave the first performance
of all of Tchaikovsky's works for piano and orchestra. Taneyev is best remembered
for his monumental book on counterpoint. Invertible Counterpoint in the Strict
Style was published in English in 1962. At age 29 he reluctantly accepted
the post of director of the Moscow Conservatory. Four years later he resigned.
It distracted him from composing, though he did continue teaching his counterpoint
We heard Piano Quartet in E, Op. 20 composed in 1908 with
cellist Andrew Gabbert joining in to complete the quartet. Nick Ross, who is originally
from England, found what is perhaps the last copy of the Taneyev quartet in a
London shop. From the brilliant Romantic opening, the sound is rich and full.
As the instrumentalists broke into individual lines they created a display of
colors, a kaleidoscope of shifting moods ranging from somber to playful. Think
of a bee flying quickly form one flower to another in a garden of hot reds, sunny
yellows, chaste white, cool blues and even deep purples, all with a mid day clarity
and you will get the feeling of the Allegro brilliante movement.
piu tosto largo is reflective in mood and meltingly beautiful. Passionate piano
playing leads us into an intense, driven main theme that may have been the inspiration
for any number of popular love songs from the 1940s and 50s - think Vaughan Monroe
or your favorite crooner. The theme appears in many variations, all interesting
and all beautiful. After all, Taneyev wrote the book on counterpoint.
allegro molto finale is a fury demanding virtuoso playing and receiving it from
each player. There is a brief, solo piano passage that briefly shifts the mood
to calm, only to plunge once again into an inferno of intensity. Only occasionally
did I find it emotionally overwhelming. In such a short time we are tumbled head-over-heals
into a maelstrom of musical ideas. As this subsides like a carousel winding down,
he returns to the love song from the second movement but again the intensity builds
as if he must squeeze in one more variation before he releases us from ecstatic
The quartet is outstanding. The communication among them as
they create the music is superior and the relaxed, open, communication in word
and playing effectively draws the listener into the experience. My only regret
is that they are not local! They will be performing at the 2009 Wintergreen Summer
Music Festival and Academy in Wintergreen, Virginia, which runs from July 6 to
August 2. Visit www.wintergreenperformingarts.org
Having the program projected on a screen above the players rather than on a printed
handout made extra work for this writer but otherwise worked well. I could get
used to this way of saving paper and ink. Engaging the audience visually in this
way heightened my focus and I heard no complaints from friends in the audience.
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