GSA Chamber Music at Chrysler Museum


Patti Watters Retires as Governor's School for the Arts
Instrumental Music Department Chair

May 19, 2011 at Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was a grand occasion. An emotionally full evening with twenty-seven graduating seniors giving their final performance as students of the Governor's School for the Arts and their beloved leader Patti Watters' last concert as Chair of the Instrumental Music Department.

Patti WattersMs. Watters was part of the core group in 1985 that founded the GSA where she taught music theory and flute. In 1989 she founded the GSA Flute Choir. She says “It has been a wonderful adventure to watch this school grow into such a positive influence on the next generation of artists.” The twenty-player string orchestra has grown into an eighty-piece award-winning full symphony orchestra playing challenging music.

The program ended with a demonstration of just how good the orchestra is as they played music by Johann Strauss, Jr., Pablo de Sarasate, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky led by GSA graduate Jeffry Phelps who completed his studies at the Cleveland Institute. This is his fifth season as conductor at GSA. He succeeds Patti Watters as chair of instrumental music. Senior Trevor Hofelich, concert master of the orchestra, was featured in Sarasate Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). Playing from memory, he made the beautiful, long lines look easy. The violin sound was clean and perfect.

Gabrielle Skinner was featured violist in Paul Hindemith Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner) part 1, played by the GSA New Music Ensemble led by founding director Stephen Coxe. It was refreshing and challenging to hear this edgy, simple, direct music that demands great accuracy.

It was a sort of palate cleanser after the richness of six selections by the GSA Big Band led by Rob DeDominick. We heard arrangements of songs by Pablo Beltran Ruiz, Romberg/Hammerstein, John Coltrane, Billy Strayhorn, Herbie Hancock and Gordon Goodwin. The Big Band of 22 players features five saxophones, five trumpets and three trombones, three each of bassists, keyboardists and drummers and a lone guitarist, Logan Stambaugh. An example of the solid group sound was Coltrane's Naima. With its raw emotion and dark moodiness it featured a solo saxophone played by Trey Sorrells.

Before the Big Band we heard two songs by the GSA Jazz Combo, directed by trumpeter Keith Philbrick which featured Stambaugh and Sorrells in Straphangin' by Michael Brecker.

The program opened with Sonata for Piano Four-Hands (1939) written by Francis Poulenc: Prelude, Rustique and Final were played by pianists Campbell Shiflett and Celine Brass. Their nuanced performance set the tone for an evening of excellently played music of all sorts. The orchestra closed with a rousing Stars and Stripes that featured a piccolo solo by Ms. Watters, joined by four members of the GSA flute quartet, also playing piccolo. Ms. Watters will return next school year two days per week as a part time flute instructor. A gala reception followed in the Miller Studio Theater where friends and colleagues continued the celebration of Patti's devoted service to music in Tidewater.

Summer Showcase of Chamber Music
at Chrysler Museum of Art

Music by Charles Ives (1874-1954) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was presented at the Chrysler Museum of Art atrium on Sunday, May 29, 2011. This event was organized by the dynamic duo from the Governor's School for the Arts, Instrumental Music Chair Jeff Phelps and Instrumental Music Artistic Advisor and GSA Orchestra Conductor Stephen Coxe They were joined by Lee Jordan Anders, pianist and professor of music and artist in residence at Virginia Wesleyan College, soloist contralto Kelly Samarzea, lecturer of music at Old Dominion University and the GSA Chamber Players.

The opening Sonata for Cello and Piano (1916) by Debussy was cool music for a hot afternoon. Ms. Jordan Anders' piano's dry, hard chords were so vivid, creating a framework for the enticingly lovely cello of Mr. Phelps. There was a clarity of texture in its ironic and metaphysical eloquence. The second movement, Sérénade, offers an imitation of guitars in the cello pizzicato double-stopping. The modal inflections suggest Spanish guitar that unites all three movements.

Ms. Jordan Anders played “The Alcotts” movement of Ives Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord Mass” (1911-12) which violates the expected development of a musical thought. Musical impressions of Scottish songs and hymns waft through the Alcott house under the elms as created with such fun in this solo piano piece. There is a little tribute to Beethoven. To quote Ives' Essay Before a Sonata “...and there sits the little, old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs. And played at the Fifth Symphony.”

We learned that Debussy never gets far from singing and dancing when Mr. Coxe played two sections of Preludes, Book I (1910). Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir gives in musical form the sound and scent of the evening air. Mr. Coxe's touch looks so gentle but there is metal in his tone when called for. Les collines d'Anacapri is all about tickling the ivories to create the sound of the island's bells in the hills.

Stephen Coxe had talked contralto Kelly Samarzea into singing half a dozen Ives songs. It was a marvelous experience. In The Housatonic at Stockbridge (text by poet Robert Underwood Johnson) her stately approach to the text made it feel sacred. Evening (text from John Milton's Paradise Lost) ends with the idea that the nightingale sang her amorous descant all night long and silence is pleased. There was a loving power in her delivery of The Things Our Fathers Loved (and the greatest of these was Liberty). The Cage (text by Ives) with its blatant piano has dramatic power but was not pretty. A boy watched a leopard pace his cage for three hours. The only interruption was a keeper who came with food and the boy wonders aloud, “Is life anything like this?”

The perky song The Circus Band captures the excitement of young adolescent boys at a major event in a small town. Perhaps it is a nostalgic look back on Ives' part – he wrote the text. Using an authentic folk song text collected by John Lomax in Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads, 1910, Ives captures the pathos and drama of the funeral and life story of “another good cowpuncher,” Charlie Rutledge, who died from a riding accident. The singer hopes to someday meet him at the shining throne of grace. Ms. Samarzea closed her set with At the River (1916) after Robert Lowry's Shall We Gather at the River. We heard a total rethinking of the familiar text, plumbing the depth of the question of what happens to our consciousness after death. We are left with the question: “Shall we gather at the river?”

The final selection continues Ives' musical quest for meaning in life. The GSA Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeff Phelps played Ives' The Unanswered Question (1906). The twenty-two strings play very softly throughout with no change in tempo. Think of the flat surface of a lake with upheavals of other voices. In this performance Mackenzie Cowcer, playing English horn, longingly intones “The Perennial Question of Existence.” Ives allows the hunt for “The Invisible Answer” to be pursued in an impromptu way by the flutes with increasing animation. Reaching a point of futility they seem to mock the question. “The Question” is asked one last time and “Silences” are heard beyond in the “Undisturbed Solitude.” Based on program notes by Ives.

To close the opening half of the program we had heard an answer to Ives' unanswered question in a miniature, three minute piece by the 20th century Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b.1926) who was educated at the Budapest Academy of Music and later studied in Paris with Messaien and Milhaud. Ligatura – Message to Frances-Marie Uitti (The Answered Unanswered Question) (1998). Kurtág treats instruments, in this case strings (3 violins, 4 cellos, piano) as though they are voices. The deeply somber cello opening gives way to tortured violins. The piece is very quiet and the ambient noise of the people moving through Huber Court obscured the structure of this delicate, challenging piece. Jeff Phelps was one of the cellists and Stephen Coxe conducted. They promised to do Kurtág's piece again so we can take its full measure.

With the changes in staff at GSA we can look forward to an expanding repertory of interesting, challenging music and so can the students who learn to play these pieces. The musical tapestry of our community just gets richer and richer!

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