Shakespeare in Song


Tidewater Guitar Quartet
Virginia Wesleyan College, September 9, 2016
Review by M.D.Ridge

Virginia Wesleyan opened its concert season September 9 with the always satisfying Tidewater Guitar Quartet, comprised of John Boyles, Sam Dorsey, Todd Holcomb and Cliff Morris.

In the intimate environs of Wesleyan’s Hofheimer Theater, the Quartet started off with Cuban composer Leo Brower’s Cuban Landscape with Rain—which sounds exactly like its title. Single notes fall on the ear like slow drops of rain, with spaces between; then two or three, a third apart, then adding more, bit by bit, becoming fuller and fuller until a rainstorm is in full swing, with crashing percussive effects—then the music becomes calmer, more peaceful, back to one or two notes, just as it started. The full rainstorm includes an aleatoric element—“chance music,” in which the instrumentalists decide how to produce the percussive sounds. It’s a wonderfully onomatopoetic work.

Celso Machado is a Brazilian world music guitarist and composer who lives in Canada. His Danças Populares Brasileiras (Popular Brazilian Dances) are short pieces for guitar quartet. Ponteio was soft and bittersweet in triple rhythm. Ciranda had a quiet, traditional sound.

Cantiga was measured, with a more modern-sounding lyricism—and a really nice jazz-like ending. In Catira, the four guitars danced to charming folk-like rhythms, hands providing percussion on the instruments’ bodies. Frevo was lively, with unusual harmonic cadences.

The players are as varied as the music they make.

From the faculty of Christopher Newport University, John Boyles is a regular member of the quartet, who has written arrangements and compositions for the Tidewater Classical Guitar Orchestra. In the Quartet, he plays the requinto, the smallest, highest-pitched guitar.

Sam Dorsey, president of the Tidewater Classical Guitar Society, founded the TCGO and is a professor of music at Norfolk State University. In the Quartet, he plays the baja, the largest and deepest-voiced guitar.

A resident of Williamsburg, where he has a private guitar studio, Todd Holcomb has been a soloist with both the TCGO and the Tidewater Guitar Quartet.

Cliff Morris, also of Williamsburg, has played guitar for Broadway musicals, radio and televisions jingles—you name it. His guitar looks—and sounds—different from the others because the sound hole is not in the middle of the soundboard, but at the top of the face, right at the shoulders. It looks odd but sounds wonderful.

Claude Debussy wrote his Children’s Corner Suite for his daughter. Boyles said, in arranging it for guitars, he had an advantage: “You can give all the hard parts to other people. The rippling arpeggios of “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” —well, you wouldn’t think scales could be so entrancing. The “Golliwogg’s Cake Walk” was a jaunty tune with intriguing rhythms.

The suite from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is one of their star turns: the snapping fingers of the Prologue, the intensity of anticipation in “Something’s Coming”; the subtle charm of “Cha Cha,” in which the melody of “Maria” can be discerned; the coolness of “Cool”; and the brilliant “America,” with its invigorating alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 rhythms

“The Miller’s Dance,” from Manuel DeFalla’s The Three Cornered Hat, was very guitaristic, though not written for guitar originally. Boyles noted, “We steal the good stuff.” After Holcomb’s cadenza-like introduction, it’s both liquid and martial, and the repeated patterns speed up into a smashing climax.

“Granada,” by Isaac Albéniz, was gentle and absorbing, with nice use of harmonics. In “Spanish Dance #1” from de Falla’s La Vida Breve, the players used their fingernails to simulate the sound of castanets.

“Passage” is by Virginia-born Andrew Yorke, who’s written two amazing pieces for the TCGO. It was challenging indeed—rapid runs in unison, percussive effects at page turns, harplike sounds, one player’s arpeggio floating up into the next, and gorgeous harmonics (those high, bell-like sounds). It all required not only great skill but supreme economy of movement.

Their encore was Xote and Caterete, two more short Brazilian dances by Machado.

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

Shakespeare in Song
Virginia Wesleyan College, November 7, 2016
Review by M.D. Ridge

Virginia Wesleyan College presented a recital of art songs honoring Shakespeare on November 7. In the first half, soprano Jennifer Piazza-Pick, baritone Bryson Mortensen and pianist Charles Woodward explored songs with texts by Shakespeare. In the second half were Elizabethan songs by contemporary composers.

The opening duet—Peter Cornelius’s (1824-1874) Come Away Death—took its text from Feste’s song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Piazza-Pick and Mortensen had a nice vocal blend; though her soprano overpowered his voice in the high notes, they ended in a beautiful pianissimo decrescendo.

From the late 19th-early 20th-century composer Roger Quilter’s Five Shakespeare Songs published in 1921, Piazza-Pick sang three. Under the Greenwood Tree, from As You Like It, was light and joyful, with its sly invitation, “Come hither; come hither.” From Measure for Measure, Take, O Take These Lips Away was more thoughtful. And from As You Like It, Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind went through a mood change from its forceful opening, to a tender, joyful “Heigh-ho to the green holly.”

The best known of British composer Gerald Finzi’s song cycles is Let Us Garlands Bring, for baritone and piano, and dedicated to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mortensen sang four of the five songs with Woodard’s immaculate accompaniment. His long-held “there” in Who Is Sylvia (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona) was very, very nice. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, from Cymbeline, began low, at the bottom of Mortensen’s range, but moved up more comfortably. The inventive piano writing underscored the mournful acceptance of mortality. The sprightly O Mistress Mine (from Twelfth Night) was rollicking, with a great pianissimo outro. Mortensen demonstrated nice breath control in the jaunty spring song, It was a lover and his lass, from As You Like It.

Piazzo-Pick returned to join Mortensen for the duet by Stephen Foster from Romeo and Juliet. Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love! Piazza-Pick not only sang the lyrics—in which Romeo must depart and Juliet must stay—she clothed them with excellent acting chops. The composition, very much of its time, would not be out of place on Dwight Davis’s From the Parlor.

American composer Dominick Argento’s song cycle Six Elizabethan Songs, first published for high voice and piano, uses traditional poetic texts from Ben Johnson, Thomas Nash, Samuel Daniel, Henry Constable—and, not least, Shakespeare. The cycle requires not only superb singing but a pianist who can balance the piano with the voice. Both Woodward and Piazza-Pick were up to the challenge of the music from the birdsong of Spring, to the interplay of piano and voice in Sleep, the unaccompanied vocal line that begins Winter, and the high, agile leaps of Diaphenia, with rippling piano ornaments.

Dirge was a setting of Come away, death, but quite different from the earlier version by Peter Cornelius. It was a wonderful song, with clean lines, expressive, with unusual vocal wanderings and a perfect ending. In the last, Hymn, Piazza-Pick spun the vocal lines out like silk. The piano finished the song. . . and no one in the audience breathed until the last overtone had faded away.

Mortensen returned to sing four selections from the song cycle The House of Life, in which Ralph Vaughan Williams set the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Silent Noon showed the full range of his pleasant baritone. Love’s Minstrels was a duet between Woodward’s masterful piano and Mortensen’s voice. Death in Love was a most successful use of Mortensen’s pleasant voice, and Love’s Last Gift was very melodic and satisfying.

The final duet was Leonard Bernstein’s evocative Tonight, from West Side Story, sung with beautiful unison passages—it sounds easy, but it’s not.

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