Stephen Coxe and Friends
Adriane Kerr, Kevin Kwan, Stephanie Marx, Bryson Mortensen, Brian Nedvin
Christ and St. Luke's Church, December 9, 2016
Review by John Campbell

As part of the “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space” series, pianist and composer Stephen Coxe once again assembled a stellar cast of chamber performers—certainly a fantastic holiday season treat for all those who want to breath some fresh musical air. Digging deep into art song and choral repertory, we were given music new to this listener by Richard Strauss, Brahms and Schütz and some familiar Bach and Britten. Performed by a diverse group of local musicians, we were bowled-over by the local talent Dr. Coxe gathered together yet again.

Christ and St. Luke's Music Director and Organist Kevin Kwan is a renowned performer who opened the evening with the twelve Camerata Choristers performing Schaffe in mir, Gott, eine rein Herz (Create in me a clean heart, O God) (Psalm 51:10) by Johannes Brahms. An organ solo followed—a meditative An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653 (Waters of Babylon) by J.S. Bach. The set of five selections brought us Teach Me Your Paths (2012) composed by Stephen Coxe (b. 1966) with Corbin Thomas Pinto singing the solo passages. Another Bach organ solo, Nun danket alle Gott BWV 657 had treble stops open throughout. It was followed by a choral work by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) Selig sind die Toten (pub. 1648) (Blessed are the dead [which die in the Lord]). As a talented young man, Schütz' patron sent him to study with Giovanni Gabrieli. We heard how Schütz grafted Italian vocal style onto German polyphony. I am almost certain that a choir of angels could not have sung sweeter.

Next we heard Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) Fünf Lieder, Op. 48 with Coxe at the piano, sung by soprano Stephanie Marx. Ms. Marx' plush sound and superb breath control on sustained notes allowed her to offer a rare depth to this deeply, romantic poetry. The sung German texts with English translations were included in the fine, large, program booklet: Freundliche Vision (Pleasant vision) speaks of meeting her love in the coolness of a white house where peaches and beauty await their arrival. In Ich schwebe (I if on angel's wings) her voice embodied the intoxicating love she spoke of. Kling! (Ring!) was the purest, most joyous passion imaginable delivered by a human voice supported by a pianist. Winterweihe (Winter Consecration) was gentle and Ms. Marx' high notes flowed out effortlessly. The last, Winterliebe (Winter love) offered great excitement in quick tempos and high notes. It was a wonderful early holiday gift and I would be greedy to ask for anything more.

The program booklet's cover art was Abraham and Isaac (1617) by Anthony van Dyck. Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1952) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was sung by tenor Brian Nedvin and mezzo-soprano Adriane Kerr with Coxe at the piano. The opening directive, spoken by God was a luminous duet in an almost whisper. The rising chord of the piano followed each spoken line of God's demand that a sacrifice be made to him.

Nedvin's voice bloomed as he pledged his obedience. Isaac declares his readiness to help with the sacrifice—to do his father's bidding. The dialogue between father and son leads to Isaac noticing Abraham's upset and asks why. Ah! Isaac, I must kill thee!” Isaac says if he is guilty of any trespass, his father my beat him. He bargains to no avail in this gruesome, vividly sung tale of loyalty to a capricious, needy God.

The drama intensifies as Isaac asks for a blessing before he is killed; he receives it and bids farewell to his life. Abraham expresses his loathing to kill his son and prays to Jesus for his pity. Here the 14th century Chester miracle play takes us into a new text as that luminous, rising piano chord appears again and again, including at the end when God provides a ram tangled in brambles for the sacrifice. The closing duet had text sung by Ms. Kerr and echoed by Brian Nedvin. In the past we heard this work sung by Mr. Nedvin and a counter-tenor. This performance gained much from the weight of the contralto depth of Ms. Kerr's voice.

Lyric baritone Bryson Mortensen sang Vier ernste Gesäange, Op. 121 (Four serious songs) by Johannes Brahms with texts from the Holy Bible. Written as his lifetime friend Clara Schumann was dying after a stroke, Brahms completed it by his last birthday on May 7, 1896. Clara died two weeks later and Brahms the following year. The first three songs deal with death, the transience of life and oppression. From Ecclesiastes, the first song Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh (One thing befalls both man and beast) tells us that both die and no one has returned to tell what happens after death. The piano offers a dramatic ending. The solution: “Man should rejoice in his own works.”

I wandte mich und sage an (I returned and saw all the injustices) … therefore I praise the dead. Mr. Mortensen's velvety baritone and clear diction soothed here and in O Tod, wie bitter bist du (O death, how bitter is the remembrance of you) but only for the man at peace in his prosperity. The second verse offers the resignation of the man who expects no better days. The final song Wenn ich mit Menschen – und mit Engelszungen (Though I speak with tongues of men and angels) without love I am nothing. His beliefs, like his music were logically thought-out. By today's standard he would be considered a secular humanist.

The climactic completion of this superb evening was Bach's Cantata 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Exalt God in every land!) performed by students of the Governor's School for the Arts led by Stephen Coxe. The soprano soloist Shannon Crowley is a junior and trumpet soloist Timothy Burleigh is a senior. The twenty-piece string orchestra from Concertmaster McKenna Irby to petite Gabbi Williams on bass were all GSA students, accompanied by Kwan's organ and conducted by Coxe.

From the excitement of the opening duet of trumpet and voice and for the next twenty minutes we were enthralled by the glorious Baroque masterpiece performed with accuracy and high energy. Their rich, full sound was driven by joy! The closing Alleluja! has trumpet and voice once again twined together as each note goes higher and higher with power.

This concert was all I really wanted for Christmas!

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