Schola Cantorum Mixes it up with Brahms, Bach and Art Song
We heard Schola Cantorum's third performance of a program titled "Love Songs" at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia on January 25, 2009. This auditioned chamber ensemble of twenty-one singers is led by Agnes Mobley-Wynne. In the Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Liebesliederwaltzer (Love Song Waltzes) Op. 52 (1868-9) Wendy Young and Amanda Halstead played piano four-hands accompaniment in these eighteen waltzes with text from Georg Daumer's Polydora. Ms. Mobley-Wynne gave us a chatty introduction to the music. Clara Schumann (Robert's widow) and Brahms gave the first performance on January 5, 1870.
The choral writing has interesting textures created by a diverse use of vocal groupings and German folk influences that we also find in Johann Strauss and other Austrian operettas. Although they got off to a bit of a rough start in the first song, it was a great deal of fun. The text is about the feelings of youth in love. Doubts and darkness are limited. There is drama and excitement from time-to-time though overall it is like the sweet New Year's Eve Concert on PBS.
My favorite part was hearing three of Bach's greatest hits on piano with chorus. Amanda Halstead's fleet and elegant lyrical piano stitched together the sung sections: In English, Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, Sleep My Safely Graze and Now Thank We All Our God. The singing was spirited and excellent.
Three solo art songs were featured, mixed in with the choral pieces in the last half of the program. They opened with Brahms' Sappische Ode. Here three female vocal groups created the part singing to excellent effect. The text, briefly: I'm moved to tears by the fragrance of roses and your sweet kisses at night. Sara Garner captured the joy in Mite inter Primula Veris by Edvard Grieg, sung in German. In its original Norwegian the title is Med en primulaveris a song celebrating the first flowers of spring. It is always exciting to hear a fine tenor voice: Joseph Brown sang Felix Mendelssohn's Auf Flügeln Gesanges (On Wings of Song), one of Mendelssohn's best known gracefully lyric melodies. A lovely piano interlude divides the second and third stanzas. Joan Kennedy shaped the musical phrases carefully and well in Frühlingsglaube (Faith in the Coming of Spring) by Franz Schubert.
With great pleasure Ms. Mobley-Wynne told us how the singers had requested more rehearsal time, all for the love of singing.
Schola Cantorum presents Misa Criolla
An abundance of musical riches were brought together by Agnes Fuller-Wynne to create a dynamic performance of Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramirez of Argentina. The collaboration of the singers of Schola Cantorum directed by Ms. Fuller-Wynne, the Tidewater Guitar Orchestra and the Old Dominion University Percussion Ensemble was presented in four evenings at different locations from January 17-24, 2010. We heard two of the four and this review is of the Chandler Hall performance on January 21 because of the acoustic purity of the hall. We were served a generous helping of Latin American music with Spanish music for dessert showcasing three of Tidewater's finest ensembles.
The program opened with Misa Criolla, a twenty minute setting of the traditional Latin mass in five sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. Sung in Castilian Spanish, the texts are set in a striking combination of the composer's melodies and traditional rhythms and dance forms drawn from the high plains, plateaus and pampas of the Andes Mountain regions of Argentina.
In 1963 the Catholic Church authorized celebration of the mass in local languages. Ariel Ramirez (b.1921) responded by writing Misa Criolla (Creole Mass). It was first recorded in 1964 in Buenos Aires and three million copies had been sold by 1998. The score was immediately published in the U.S., Canada and Argentina. The first public performance had to wait until 1967 when Ramirez conducted it in Germany. The luxury of having the sixteen players of the Tidewater Guitar Orchestra, led by Sam Dorsey and the eight percussionists of the Old Dominion University Percussion Ensemble, led by David Walker added enormous vitality to the twenty-one voices of Schola Cantorum. The note of special thanks to Andrey Kasparov in the program booklet failed to mention that Kasparov has been diligently collecting South American folk instruments for several months for an upcoming performance of the ODU Contemporary Music Ensemble that he directs. The piece, José-beFOR JOHN5 by Aurél Holló was previewed at all four performances. David Walker, assistant director of the group, was joined by Dale Lazar, Bryan Maurer and Nik White in a stunning performance, enthusiastically received by the audience.
Sam Dorsey began the Guitar Orchestra in the spring of 1995. It is one of the few orchestras of its kind in North America. Drawing from their diverse repertoire we heard a set of three pieces: Astor Piazzolla Libertango arranged by John Boyles, a performing member of the TGO; Julia, an original piece by Boyles (b.1954); and Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados (1867-1916) arranged by Dan Cudney. Mr. Cudney played a charango, a tiny guitar for the Gloria movement of Misa Criolla that created in me an infectious joy. I wanted to dance! But I digress.
Tidewater Guitar Orchestra originally got their music from a similarly configured guitar orchestra in Costa Rica. Pieces were mostly arrangements of music by Central and South American composers. John Boyles and Dan Cudney also began arranging works by Bach, Telemann, Mozart, Bartók, Copland and others. Lately they have been playing new compositions by Andrew York, a native Virginian who is a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. His arrangements have a glowing vitality that pleases me greatly.
Guitars are members of the lute family of instruments with a long history of changes in size and shape. The TGO has four of each: requinto I and requinto II, standard guitars and bajas. Requintos are about 20% smaller than a guitar, have nylon strings and represent the first and second violins of an orchestra; the guitar represents the viola; bajas the cello and the bass guitar is the upright bass. Percussion effects are usually produced by drumming the fingers on the body of the guitar. But in this performance we heard Dan Cudney's piece Rana del Arbol with percussion furnished by the ODU ensemble.
The percussion set that followed had Dale Lazar and Bryan Maurer in the piece José-beFORe JOHN5 playing with drumsticks on a slack-stringed guitar lying on its back, with strikes directly on the strings. Afterwards Sam Dorsey said he felt like comforting the guitar for the abuse it had sustained! The piece has wonderful and exciting tone colors with a flamenco flavor using a variety of instruments: a cajon (wooden box drum), African talking drum, Polynesian long drum, tabla, an oboe-like piece of pipe, two dueling marimbas, etc.
Leyenda by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), written for piano, is a piece usually heard on guitar but in this program David Walker was soloist on marimba. The marimba begins and castanets, bongos and other instruments join in; the intensity builds until there are eight percussionists together. The added players are from the ODU Contemporary Music Ensemble.
Earlier in the program we heard four brief Villancicos sung by Schola Cantorum. The three to five part madrigal-like settings are of risqué Spanish verses that came from secular peasant songs originally from Medieval dance lyrics. Over time the term villancico has come to mean “Christmas carol” but these saucy tales were anything but...
The women of Schola sang Nigra Sum from the Song of Solomon set by Pablo Casals (1876-1973) in English translation by Kenneth Stern. It is a lovely song and the spectrum of voices were used with excellent results. The encore was the opening section of the Gloria of Misa Criolla and brought this happy evening to an end.
Schola Cantorum Sings a Commissioned Requiem
Local composer Walter T. Marshall, III wrote all of the music performed by Schola Cantorum on May 8, 2010 at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church (repeated at 3 other venues later in the month). Marshall's six motets composed in 1999 through 2005 and his requiem in F minor composed in 2010 commissioned by Schola Cantorum featured solo voices enhanced by Schola's chorus divided in two, four and sometimes six voices. The demands on the singers are fearsome with many key changes and with nothing but unaccompanied voices, requiring that the singer find and stay on pitch.
The sound is “glorious and spiritual” as Director Agnes Mobley-Wynne described it. The communication of the text has a natural simplicity no matter that the music is complex and complicated for the singers. Mr. Marshall's settings enhance the sound of natural speech. There is a relaxed respect for the meaning of the words, with nothing stagey and no high melodrama. Marshall seems to tap into the wellspring of human voicing.
The motets use Bible texts except for O Sacrum Convivium from St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1260). The ancient text is in a modern jazz-influenced choral setting “slightly reminiscent of the Olivier Messiaen version of this text” say the program notes prepared by the composer. It features many altered chords, diminished chords and suspensions not found in conservative (editor's note: often boring) liurgical music.
God Is Gone Up On High (Psalm 47: 5-6 and 68:18) is of short duration using word painting with an ascending melody on each voicing of “gone up” with the climax a high triumphant ending on “gone up on high.”
In Christus Factus Est the soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB) lines are stacked one on the other creating an ever richer sound. In Justorum Animae the voices create a unified wave of sound that carries all before it, an overwhelming flood of beauty. The text for Nunc Dimittis is the song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-33) in a setting of enhanced natural speech.
This was the premier public performance of the Requiem in F minor in eleven sections for a cappella four-part chorus and soloists. Mr. Marshall worked closely with the group, coming to every rehearsal where his written notes became live music through the twenty-six voices of Schola, under the direction of Agnes Fuller Wynne. There were only four tenors with solos by Joe Brown and recently returned to the group Joe DeBeasso who has a rich, powerful instrument. Ken Wright and usual baritone Bob Miya completed the four.
In the Rex Tremendae Majestatis the tenor and bass singers voice four parts, reprising the opening two measures of Tuba Mirum, this time in a major key. It ends with “a ghastly bass solo” sung by Lyle Foelle superinposed over the opening section sung by the other low voices. A quartet of sopranos sang the Kyrie. A solo soprano states the Introit theme and a second soprano adds a descant. This becomes a double descant with the fourth soprano's entrance. The group sings in unison the beginning of In Paradisum, a simple repetition of the Introit bringing the requiem to its resting place, an expected minor chord into a major third.
The audience we were a part of was small but much larger at subsequent performances. It was an excellent musical afternoon.
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