Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Chamber Music Recital
Stephen Coxe and Friends
Christ and St. Luke’s Church, Norfolk, December 8, 2014
Review by John Campbell
In an age where there is instant communication world-wide with smart phones and virtual this and that, Stephen Coxe has shaped a live-music, mobile salon that brings listeners and performers together in various venues, sometimes at ODU’s Chandler Hall, last spring at a Baptist church in Virginia Beach and most recently in the beautiful Gothic interior of Christ and St. Luke’s. But wherever the salon meets there are always unusual musical treats, some of which are his own compositions, others by Britten, Poulenc, mostly 20th century composers.
Kevin Kwan opened the program with the Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Preamble for a Solemn Occasion (1949). The great rumble of the organ soon became a probing gentle tune—thoughtful with building dynamics followed by a bright muscular ending. Dr. Kwan is organist and director of music at Christ and St. Luke’s and a dynamic musical force in the community.
By sitting near the front one could imagine oneself in a large living room where a lovely violin/piano collaboration unfolded. Pianist Coxe and violinist Pavel Ilyashov demonstrated a synergistic rapport in Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major Op. 78 (1880), movement 1 – Vivace ma non troppo by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). There was passion in their playing in this gloriously lyrical work with long-breathed melodies and dotted rhythms.
Contralto Kelly Montgomery sang the premiere of Stephen Coxe’s composition A Clear Midnight (2014) (In memory of Lee Teply). The a cappella opening line by Walt Whitman—”This is thy hour, O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless” was followed by the piano accompanied “Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done.” The powerfully repeated last phrase was followed word-by-word in a meditative slow pace. The last words “Night, sleep, death and the stars” left room for tears in the silence that followed.
Remaining at the piano, Dr. Coxe was joined by his co-musical conspirator Jeffrey Phelps, with his cello in hand. They played Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) Louange à l’Éternité de Jesus (Eulogy to the Eternity of Jesus) featuring an infinitely slow and majestic solo in this movement from Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) (1940). The piece continued the meditative, somber mood with music that seems stationary in time, holding this listener in awe with its mood of catatonic anxiety. He wrote the piece for himself and three fellow prisoner-musicians for the only instruments available while in a German prison camp during WWII. After the performance the Germans listed the 4 players as “musician soldiers.” The German bureaucracy took this to mean non-combatant bandsmen and released them back to France.
Once again at the organ, Kevin Kwan closed the first half with another piece by Messiaen, Dieu parmi nous (God with us), the closing section from La Nativié du Seigneur (The Lord’s Nativity) (1935), the subtle and only connection to Christmas in this December concert. Though on page the music is seems dominated by melodic concerns within a careful texture (musicologist John Wilson’s words), the work turns out to be flashes of color and light—fireworks in actual performance. Clearly articulated and with breathtakingly quick passages in contrast to the intimate organ we heard earlier, the organ sound was grand, remote, impersonal, attempting to evoke awe of the divine. Offering a great emotional release seems to be Messiaen’s intention for the closing section of The Lord’s Nativity.
No program organized by Stephen Coxe would be complete without music by Dubussy or Ravel. The last half offered music by both, a special gift for lovers of French music. Together again, violinist Pavel Ilyashov and pianist Coxe played Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917). This sonata was one of a projected series of six chamber sonatas and was the third and last completed. The opening notes create a musical space with a broad melodic flavor that blends elements of mainstream chamber music and Gypsy violin. There were plucked strings in the second movement that moves with ease between joking, playful and improvisatory sections while the piano offers a steady, even foundation. In the third section Debussy displays a lifetime of developed instrumental colors. Opening with an explosion of unaccompanied violin, an incessant stream of sixteenth notes suspended only a few times for dramatic effect in the piano with glistening parallel lines in both instruments together. There is an abstract clarity in this his final piece before he succumbed to cancer at age 55.
The last piece, Chanson Madécasses (Songs of Madagascar) (1926) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) offered the luxury of a chamber performance of songs usually accompanied by piano only. This was mezzo-soprano Suzanne Oberdorfer’s first excursion into this repertory. Patti Watters accompanied on flute, Jeff Phelps on cello and Stephen Coxe, piano. In an ecstatic love song, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove! , the singer, the beautiful Nahandove’s lover, waits for the return of his beloved in a warm, exotic setting of woods, flowers, birds and moonlight. The voice is so soft in its longing that it becomes an instrument with the others.
The second, Méfiez-vous des blancs (Do not trust the white man) is a song of protest and contains a frightful warning: “Do not trust the white men, dwellers of the shore.” The history recounted is of the people regaining their freedom. This fear of losing their freedom again was given powerful voice by Ms. Oberdorfer until the final caressing “Awa” which sounded like a resolution.
The concluding Il est doux de se coucher (It is sweet to rest) is from a male perspective, given voice by a female singer. This could be said of the entire cycle. The sense of repose on a hot summer afternoon while he lies under a leafy tree and invites women to sing, dance and tell amusing stories was captured as exotic, sensuous colors created by the instruments, the voice being the main one. This was Ms Oberdorfer’s first public performance of these songs and I would urge her to an even more passionate reading when she repeats them in a planned February recital. I plan to be there to hear her new insights as the songs settle into her voice.
The complete cycle, sung by Medeleine Grey with Ravel conducting from the piano can be found on YouTube.
Chamber Music Recital: Stephen Coxe and Friends
Christ and St. Luke's, December 8, 2015
Review by F.C Waugh
Composer and pianist Stephen Coxe has long impressed us with his beautifully programmed chamber music concerts in Norfolk. The performance at Christ and St. Luke’s Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Series on December 8th was no exception. The largely French program floated between sacred and profane subjects in works for organ, piano, voice, cello, and flute.
The opening pieces were a nod to the season in a concert that offered an antidote to seasonal sweets. Organist Kevin Kwan played three Preludes (1998) selected from a set of nine Choral Preludes composed by Stephen Coxe (b. 1966) on familiar, seasonal themes, each of which explored increasingly complex moods and demonstrated the power and versatility of the genre. A fairly traditional setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now Come Savior of the Heavens) contrasted smooth polyphony with the reedy phrases of the chorale melody, presented in canon. In dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing) transformed this c. 1400 melody into something more contemplative, promoting an overwhelming calm with its tangled voices and flowing theme. The third prelude, based on Puer natus in Bethlehem (A Child is Born in Bethlehem), explored the depth and desolation of night with anxious, even jagged lines in a complex layering of colors and moods, suggesting the excitement and restlessness of the expectant mother after the Annunciation. Kwan’s performance—hesitant at times, flowing at others—gracefully balanced these nuanced emotions.
Cellist Jeffrey Phelps joined Kwan to play Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Prière (Prayer, 1919). With an impeccable sense of balance, the duo flourished in the sparse textures, uncertain harmonic territory, and searching melodic lines of this short work. This balance was not merely limited to the acoustics of the music, as the performers evoked an atmosphere somewhere between a meditation and an aria, neither too extroverted nor too isolated. Their sound, sincere and inclusive, was quite moving.
In contrast to Prière, Trois Chansons de Bilitis (1898) that followed overflowed with the sensuous harmonies and erotic language of Claude Debussy (1870-1925) and poet Pierre Louÿs. Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Oberdorfer’s round tone melded beautifully with the character of Debussy’s lush piano chords, but more than once Coxe’s accompaniment covered her in the reverberant space. One could feel frigidity in the third song, Le tombeau des Naïades, which captured the sadness of a winter visit to the garden where the water nymphs had played in summer.
The first half ended with English composer Andrew Carter (b. 1939) Toccata on Veni Emmanuel (1995), a work that the composer describes as “in a French toccata style.” Though short in duration, its harmonic twists and turns took the well-known tune on a roller-coaster ride that highlighted the skill and spirit of organist Kevin Kwan.
For me, the highlight of the concert was Albert Roussel’s (1869-1937) Joueurs de flûte (Flute Players, 1924), performed by flutist Patti Watters accompanied by Coxe . Their thoughtful interpretation of the work, a set of character pieces depicting famous fictional flutists, showed a wide range of expression. Pan presented a sweeping pastoral landscape punctuated by brief diversions, and Tityre, Virgil’s shepherd from the Bucolics, bubbled and sparkled. While these characters played on Earth, Krishna seemed to float somewhere in the ether, where the duo crafted a particularly rich and deep—yet absolutely weightless—tone. Monsieur de la Péjaudie returned us to the land of the profane, full of mischievous energy. Their captivating performance pulled together love and lust, the spiritual and the earthly, and the fabled past and the known present. After each movement as Mrs. Watters lowered her flute, an electric air gripped the audience in a bare silence.
Tenor Brian Nedvin sang three of Coxe’s Hebrew Songs (2014), superb settings based on epigrams by two medieval Spanish poets, with the composer at the piano. The declamatory outer songs captured the frustration in these texts, making full use of Nedvin’s rich upper register. The middle song, Do you not see, was especially engaging, developing out of soft repeated chords a series of points and lines. While in the outer movements Nedvin and Coxe impressed with their energy and drama, here they crafted a compelling musical geometry: subtle, yet hypnotizing.
To close, Phelps returned with Coxe to perform the Debussy Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915). Their skillful playing of the many-layered Prologue gave power to the music, from the monumental opening to the development of Debussy’s incantatory theme. The charismatic Sérénade followed with an energetic dialogue between the two instruments reminiscent of guitar music and Debussy’s earlier work, La sérénade interrompue from the Préludes for piano. The third movement, the animated, light and nervous Finale, grew into an ecstatic dance. And while there is no perfect performance the performers’ dedication and constant communication maintained an unwavering message of joy and energy.
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