The Thirteen


An Evening of Mostly Music by Gabriel Fauré at Virginia Wesleyan College
Piano Trio in D, Two Songs and Requiem
Hofheimer Theater, March 9, 2015
Review by John Campbell

The Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) Requeim at 30 plus minutes does not offer a full program. The pieces paired with the Requiem were the musical high points of the evening.

The redoubtable Lee Jordan-Anders on piano was joined by major local musicians Paul Kim on violin and Jeffrey Phelps on cello for Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120, written after Fauré was forced into retirement in his mid-70s when he was almost completely deaf. The two melodies in the first movement—Allegro ma non troppo—wavering between elegy and lament, receive a usual exposition and contrapuntal development. The themes are passed among the three instruments. There are rushes of melody that intensify near the end.

The edgy, second movement —Andantino—was romantic but with unanswered questions: lambent lyricism shared by violin and cello is answered by a piquantly harmonized heart-stopping melody on piano. The interplay spins a delicate, exquisitely modulated, deep, pathos.

In conversation, cellist Phelps told us he was left wondering what Fauré was up to in the third—Allegro vivo—movement with a quirky tune that bounds along with great vigor. “The energetic finale features the strings in unison followed by ascending flourishes on the piano—a frantic race to the finish” says Lee Jordan-Anders in her helpful historical notes. The trio played with joyous engagement in this almost never-heard piano trio.

Once soprano Billye Brown Youmans stepped on stage, she transformed into the complete French singer: her poise, stance, look and sound were utterly French as she sang two of Fauré’s more well-loved songs.

Told from the man’s point of view, Les Roses d’Ispahan (1884) is an exotic French melodie that blends fascination with things Oriental and classic symmetry of form. This is sensual music, sweet but unsentimental. The scent of the rose is less fresh than his beloved’s breath. Her lips and soft laughter are lovelier than the sound of rippling water. And yet the charms of nature are more certain than her fickle love. As the story ends he yearns for the return of her youthful love.

The second selection began with a mischievous twinkle in Ms. Youman’s eye. In Mandoline Fauré places a graceful figure in the piano accompaniment to suggest the mandolin player. The song sets a scene of young blades and elegantly clad young women whirling in ecstasy in a moonlit garden. The singing is engaging because the singer is completely present in the story she sings. She convinced us that she “owns” these songs.

In his notes for the Requiem, Conductor Michael-John Trotta says he aimed to present the Requiem in a form as close to Fauré’s original as possible, a more intimate concept of the work. The chorus included some 60 voices: the Wesleyan Singers and the Virginia Children’s Chorus Chamber Singers (their most advanced group). They were accompanied by a chamber orchestra of violin, two violas, two cellos, French horn, organ and piano.

Written originally in 1887-88, Fauré said he wanted his Requiem to be different from most, and the result is a calm, quiet work with none of the grandiloquence of Berlioz or Verdi and no raging Dies Irae. His message, Fauré said, was “happy deliverance, not mournful passing.” The original performance, in a Paris church, had only five movements—no Offertoire, no Libera me—scored for mixed choir, organ, harp, tympani, violas and cellos, double bass and piano. Children took the soprano choral parts and a boy soprano sang the Pie Jesu.

The well-trained students gave Conductor Trotta the singing he asked for. The musicians were first rate and in such an intimate hall, where a whisper can be heard, restrained singing can generate excitement. But it did not happen; tightly controlled dynamics never allowed the music to soar or offer joy.

The central part of the seven movements, the Pie Jesu for solo soprano was sung by a few high soprano voices contrasted by the deep string tones and came across as anemic and painfully slow. Remember, Fauré’s premier used a boy soprano. At the beginning things had looked hopeful when the a cappella chorus in the Offertoire broke into parts, weaving together the text with occasional deep accents and ending with the only “Amen” in all the movements.

In one of two brief violin phrases, Paul Kim’s violin on “Hosanna in excelsis” (Sanctus) offered a glimmer of excitement. This performance fits well with Dr. Trotta’s aesthetic. Readers may recall my guarded enthusiasm for his choral writing in the January 15, 2015 review of his CD. This performance confirmed his desire to offer pale, quiet, controlled singing.

This was not the music written by Fauré. This was not the music written by Fauré! Thought not credited in the program, after some investigation we discovered that it was arranged by John Rutter. In the past we have found that Rutter’s pop, choral sound has always been emotionally accessible.

VWC: The Thirteen
Hofheimer Theater, April 10, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

A chamber choir of thirteen a cappella singers, aptly named The Thirteen, gave a stunning performance of music from the Tudor period at Virginia Wesleyan’s Hofheimer Theater April 10, under Matthew Robertson’s crisply spirited direction. The historically informed program, entitled Immortal Legacy–Tudor Giants, was a shining wonder from start to finish.

The composers included many well-known to most—such as, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and King Henry VIII—as well as others less familiar to modern audiences. Meticulous phasing, clear diction, superb blend and extraordinary beauty of sound were among the hallmarks of The Thirteen’s performance.

They began with Stella coeli, a hymn by the late 15th-century composer Walter Lambe, sung by the full chamber choir. The text asks the aid of the Star of heaven, the Virgin Mary, in vanquishing the deadly plague of the time. The Thirteen did justice to the music’s long melismas; their beautifully tuned ornamentation floated on the air in waves of pure sound.

Three love songs followed. Robert Fayrfax was a prominent composer during the reigns of the Tudor Kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII; his song “I love unloved” was a plaint by an unloved, but hopeful lover. In “Ah Robin, gentle Robin,” by leading court musician William Cornysh, Jr., another unhappy lover sighs that his love may, or may not, be untrue. Considering that most marriages of the time were arranged with regard to property, not feelings, the sighing of unhappy lovers was not an uncommon occurrence.

The French partsong “Helas, Madame” was written by King Henry VIII. At that period in history, in addition to more mundane skills like archery and swordsmanship, royalty were expected to be able to read, speak and understand several different languages, play one or more instruments with skill— and write attractive, rather complicated music.

Describing Thomas Tallis’s “Salve intemerata,” academics can parse structure and modes, but I could only let the soaring beauty of the music carry me into a different world on swelling waves of pure sound.

William Byrd’s “Ambitious love” began the second half, followed by “Quam pulchra est,” by Henry VIII, perhaps inspired by the Song of Songs, and “If ye love me,” by Tallis. William Mundy composed “Vox Patris caelestis” during the reign of Queen Mary, adapting the Song of Songs quite remarkably by having God the Father say to the Virgin Mary, “I have loved you above all others.” It’s a major work; different groups of singers took different sections, and the full chorus sang with joyful power.

The final song, “Sweet heart arise,” was a happy madrigal by Thomas Weelkes. Their encore was “Fair Phyllis,” a cheerful madrigal by John Farmer.

The program notes were very detailed and wonderfully informative, placing each composer and work in historical context.

To talk about the remarkable abilities and sound of the individual singers would take more time than I am allowed. And it would be like trying to say which whitecaps on the ocean reflect the sun most beautifully, or which leaves on a tree dance most gracefully with the wind. I should, however, acknowledge Sarah Holland, who flew from England to replace an ailing soprano—with three days’ rehearsal!

The members of The Thirteen live and work in different mid-Atlantic areas. For this tour, for instance, they received the music well in advance to work on by themselves, before coming together for three days of meticulous, grueling 8-hour rehearsals in preparation for the tour, which ran from January to mid-April, from Philadelphia to Florida. This takes not only superb musicianship but amazing stamina.

I stand in awe.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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