Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amanda Balestrieri, Bruce Barrie, Cynthia Katsarelis, David Schwartz, Heidi Mendenhall, Kaori Uno, Lisa Martin, Michelle Orman, Michelle Stanley, Pro Musica Coloardo Chamber Orchestra, Tonya Jilling
Friday evening, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis presented an absolutely sensational program at the Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver. I use the word sensational because that is precisely what this concert was. It has taken a while for the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra to establish a reputation, but if any of you readers doubt that they have done so, I urge you to attend their next concert which will be Saturday, October 18, at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder. You will have another chance to hear them, but you will have to wait until February 6, 2015. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a professional orchestra. It has the incredible precision and musicianship that sets it firmly in place, and Maestra Katsarelis has most certainly guided them to that position. She has conducted in Europe and the United States. Not only has she conducted chamber orchestras, but symphony orchestras as well. In addition she has considerable experience conducting opera.
Katsarelis opened the program with Rakastava (The Lover), a rarely heard work by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Sibelius wrote this work in 1894, and it was originally conceived as a suite of four songs for male choir. The text tells the story of a tryst which ends at dawn. It was written for a competition which Sibelius did not win; however, he valued the pieces a great deal, so he set them aside, and, 18 years later he arranged the work for a string orchestra. The writing is extremely effective for strings, and, I believe, generally reflects the fact that he was an accomplished violinist. As a matter of fact, he began life aspiring to become a violinist, but, eventually, he became a composer after reluctantly admitting that he began his violin studies too late in life to become a virtuoso.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and Maestra Katsarelis were aware of the fact that Sibelius was a violinist. The orchestra seemed to be making a very special effort in its sound for this work: it had a remarkable plaintive and introspective sound that, in most cases, only a solo violinist could produce. It was surprising to hear the entire violin section create that aura. Maestra Katsarelis led them in this union of thought. Though Sibelius seems often to have been influenced by Wagner, the atmosphere created in this work by the orchestra was quite ephemeral. That may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it was wonderful to listen to. It certainly made one lament the fact that even though Sibelius lived a very long life, he did not publish any truly significant works after 1925.
After the marvelous performance of the Sibelius, Amanda Balestrieri performed Samuel Barber’s wonderful Knoxville: Summer of 1915. I have heard her sing this work before with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and I will quote from the introductory remarks from that review:
“…There were times when it seemed that Samuel Barber was the only twentieth century American composer who still believed in lyricism, but this work, plus his Violin Concerto, his Piano Concerto, Adagio for Strings, and his Piano Sonata, will forever stand the test of time. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is the setting of James Agee’s work, and reflects the unerring taste in Barber’s literary interest. Both Samuel Barber and James Agee were five years old in 1915, and both became good friends after they met.”
To that paragraph I will also add that Barber and James Agee seemed to share so many coincidences. Barber wrote that:
“… We both had backyards where our families use to lie in the long summer evenings, we each had an aunt who was a musician. I remember well my parents sitting on the porch, talking quietly as they rocked. And there was the trolley car with straw seats and a clanging bell called ‘The Dinky’ that traveled up and down the main street… Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply, and my musical response that summer of 1947 [when he read Agee’s poem] was immediate and intense. I think I must’ve composed Knoxville within a few days.”
Amanda Balestrieri performs this piece as though she had experienced the same summers, and I must say, in the same place that are mentioned in Agee’s poem:
“… People go by; things go by.
A horse, drawing a buggy,
breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt;
a loud auto; a quiet auto;
people in pairs, not in a hurry,
scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body,
talking casually, the taste hovering over them
of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk…”
She brought to this piece the same intimacy that we all feel when we think of past summer days that were warm from the sun, as well as warm in our hearts, when everything was green, and when it was the custom to seek refuge in simple relaxation. There was most certainly a mutual understanding between Balestrieri and Maestra Katsarelis and the orchestra. It was wonderful, and it made me wonder why this composition of Barber’s is not performed more often. I would have loved to have heard them perform this piece twice. There was some wonderful woodwind work that emphasized how well-rounded this orchestra is. Michelle Orman, clarinet, Heidi Mendenhall, clarinet, David Schwartz and Kaori Uno, bassoon, Michelle Stanly, flute, and Lisa Martin oboe, were absolutely terrific. Their playing was warm and emotional. Tonya Jilling, harp, was superb.
After the intermission Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Symphony Nr. 39 in E flat Major, K. 543. I must say that I have long had a weakness for Mozart’s 39th Symphony, and it seems almost inconceivable that even Mozart could write his three greatest symphonies (39, 40 in G minor, and 41 in C major) in such a short space of time during the summer of 1788. All three were written in less than nine weeks, but one must remember that Mozart could write a piece of chamber music or concerto for an intimate friend in a matter of a few hours. Of course, he considered symphonic writing more serious and would spend a lot of time revising and changing the instrumentation.
This symphony begins with a slow introduction which reflects the borrowing that went on between Haydn and Mozart, for Mozart borrowed the slow introduction from Haydn, and Haydn borrowed a more melodic line from Mozart. The slow introduction for this work is conceived in the style of a pre-classic French overture, and some conductors make too much out of this by conducting it in a very heavy and overly serious manner, forgetting all about the clarity that Mozart demands. Maestra Katsarelis is well aware of how to meld the combination of seriousness and lightness, and communicate it to the orchestra. In bar 26, where the exposition section of this symphony begins, it was wonderful and light, with the violins’ answered by the French horns in the next measure. It was quite noticeable, and I am serious when I say this, that there does not seem to be any weakness in the musicians of this orchestra. I wish there were space here to list every one of them by name, for they all deserve mention. I must mention Bruce Barrie, Principal Trumpet, who was absolutely superb in this first movement. And that brings me to another very minor point: the program notes, which were otherwise excellent, omitted the names of the cellos and the contrabass player.
The second movement, marked Andante con moto, is, perhaps, one of Mozart’s most beautiful, slow movements, and it is interesting to note that the audience was at their most silent when this movement was being played. The dynamic range that Maestra Katsarelis demanded was extreme in this movement, and it was amazing to listen to the orchestra so easily fulfill her wishes. The third movement is a minuet, and Mozart has clearly marked it Menuetto: Allegretto; however, it is quick enough that it has lost its staid, courtly dance feeling, and becomes similar to the future scherzo which Beethoven would make famous. There is a marvelous clarinet solo in this movement, but I must admit that I could not see the clarinet players from where I was sitting; however, I assume that this solo was given to the Principal Clarinet, Michelle Orman.
As the fourth movement of this wonderful Symphony began. I was quite surprised at the fast tempo that Maestra Katsarelis demanded. It was perfect, but it was truly fast, and the orchestra simply got down to business and played it perfectly. I emphasize again that this is a professional orchestra, and, Friday evening, it seemed they could do anything they wished without any problem whatsoever. This was a wonderful performance of this Mozart Symphony and the tempos that Katsarelis took, along with the dynamically shaped phrases and rhythmic accents, heightened Mozart’s mastery of the symphonic form. It is interesting to note that the program notes correctly state that there is no precise record of his performance for this symphony; however in the Estates Theater in Prague, where his Symphony Nr. 38 were premiered in 1786, there is a small plaque that states that this symphony was premiered in Prague as well. However, I must say, that I can find no reference to validate what that plaque says.
The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra gave a performance Friday evening that any chamber Orchestra in the United States would be proud of. This was one of the most exciting programs I have heard simply because everything on the program was so excellent. It was also exciting because the orchestra made such wonderful music and clearly enjoyed the effort that it took to do so. You must go hear them.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Mahler, James Judd, Joseph Haydn, Justin Bartels, Olga Kern, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Saturday, October 11, I attended the Colorado Symphony concert with great eagerness. There were several reasons for that frame of mind: 1) I always enjoy the Colorado Symphony concerts, 2) Olga Kern was performing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, 3) the CSO was performing the Haydn Symphony Nr. 103, and I have always had a weakness for Haydn symphonies. In addition, this performance was to be conducted by James Judd, an English conductor whose reputation is rapidly growing in the USA.
I will quote a couple of paragraphs from Maestro Judd’s biographical statement:
“An artist of outstanding versatility, British born conductor James Judd is sought after for his passionate musicianship and his charismatic presence both on and off the podium. Known for his extraordinarily communicative style and bold, imaginative programming, repeat engagements in concert halls from Prague to Tokyo attest to his rapport with audiences and musicians alike. In his distinguished career, James Judd has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony, the English Chamber Orchestra, BBC Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Indianappolis Symphony, Cincinnatti Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. Performance highlights from this past season include engagements with the Hungarian National Philharmonic, the NHK Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia Rome, performances of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the Vienna Symphony and a tour of China, Japan and Taiwan performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with the Asian Youth Orchestra.
“Considered one of the pre-eminent interpreters of British orchestral music, Judd’s recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 with the Halle Orchestra is still a highly regarded reference standard among conductors today. He has amassed an extensive discography on the Naxos label, including an unprecedented number in partnership with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, where he is Music Director Emeritus. Recordings of works by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin and many others received critical acclaim. A champion of the works of Gustav Mahler, Judd’s performances of this monumental composer have been praised the world over. His recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 was awarded the Gold Medal by France’s Diapason as well as the Toblacher Komponierhauschen for the best Mahler recording of the year. Judd’s orchestral recordings are also featured on the Decca, EMI and Philips labels.”
Maestro Judd opened the program with Mahler’s Blumine. Originally, this work was the andante movement from Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. In November of 1889, Mahler conducted this symphony in Budapest, where he revised the symphony even during its rehearsal because he finally had the opportunity of hearing just how his orchestration of this work sounded. The symphony was quite long (even now this work takes almost an hour to perform) and the reaction of the critics was strong indeed: one critic said that its endless length infuriated him. The result was that Mahler discarded the second movement from the work which he had entitled Blumine.
It is an absolutely beautiful piece of music with an incredibly lyrical trumpet solo wonderfully performed by Justin Bartels, who is Principal Trumpet with the CSO. Maestro Judd, as his above bio statement reveals, is a champion of Mahler and his conducting of this short movement clearly displayed his sensitivity for this composer. It also seemed apparent to me that the orchestra respected his conducting ability, for there was absolutely no hesitation in following his every movement and demand.
In 1791, Haydn arrived in England, and he wrote his first of the London Symphonies (93, 94, 95 and 96) in that year. He was persuaded to stay in London for the following year wherein he wrote Symphonies 97and 98. In June 1792, Haydn had to return to Vienna where he introduced his early London Symphonies. But by the end of 1793, Haydn had once again received permission from Prince Anton Esterházy, his employer, to resume his travels, and he returned to London on February 5 of 1794. His 103rd Symphony was written in London in 1795. As always, his symphonies were very well received.
Maestro Judd’s performance of the Symphony was enthusiastic indeed, and he relished explaining the opening drumroll to the audience. When Haydn premiered his symphonies, it was the custom for the audience to be milling about somewhat, and perhaps, even eating as they waited for the concert to start. Haydn decided that he would open his movement with a few measures of forte solo tympani in order to attract the audience’s attention so that they would sit down and listen attentively to his composition.
Following the opening drumroll, admirably played by Steve Hearn, a slow introduction follows that makes use of the low strings and bassoons. However, it did not seem to have the dark and brooding quality under the baton of Maestro Judd that so many other conductors give this slow introduction. It is the longest of Haydn’s slow introductions, and you readers must understand that it was Haydn who initiated introductions to the first movement of his symphonies. Following the introduction was the allegro section of the first movement and its spirited 6/8 meter was light and airy and pure Haydn. The andante second movement is a theme and variations, which truly uses two separate themes one: in C Major and one in C minor. This movement has a wonderful violin solo which was beautifully done by Yumi Hwang-Williams. The third movement is, of course, a minuet and Trio form; however, by this time in his creative output, Haydn had increased the tempo of the minuet. This was no longer a rather staid court dance, but neither was it the rapid scherzo movement originated by Beethoven. The woodwinds were certainly prominent in the Trio, and their delightful playing provided a contrast to the rather dark theme of the Minuet. I have not heard this symphony for quite some time, and the last movement of this work, marked Allegro con spirito, reminded me very much of Haydn’s use of folk material. The first five notes of the theme return almost constantly, surfacing from one section of the orchestra after another. James Judd filled this entire Haydn Symphony with a kind of charm that is so typical of Haydn’s work, and yet there was a certain overtone of seriousness that comes from Haydn’s mastery of the sonata form and his remarkable innovations.
After the intermission the pianist, Olga Kern, performed the very well-known Piano Concerto Nr. 3 by Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern has always been a startlingly fine pianist possessed of a very sincere musicianship and absolutely remarkable technique. It has been two years since I have heard her perform, but I have heard her many times. Saturday evening, to put it simply, she took my breath away. Her incredible ability at keyboard has matured and become even better in the two years since I have heard her. As I say this, keep in mind that Rachmaninoff was no doubt the finest pianist since Franz Liszt, and, since his death in 1943, there have been very few pianists who have come close to his intelligent performances, superior musicianship, and unfailingly ferocious technique. Keep in mind that he was 6’6” tall, and had hands that could reach almost 2 octaves – C to A (and that was demonstrated backstage to my mother by Rachmaninoff on a backstage piano after one of his concerts in 1936). The kind of murderous figurations in his compositions, which create terror in the hearts of modern pianists, he could simply do all day with seemingly little or no effort. And, there was never any blurring, or confusion of melodic direction and musical expression.
The reason I discuss all of this is that, as I said above, there have been many pianists today who come close to Rachmaninoff’s ability at the keyboard, but, perhaps, some of them don’t have his musicianship. And sometimes, those who have his musicianship do not have his ability at the keyboard.
I am firmly convinced that Olga Kern has his ability as a musician and as a pianist. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 was absolutely astounding. Certainly, she does not have Rachmaninoff’s reach at the keyboard, but she certainly has remarkable power, not only in her strength, but in her ability to reach into a piece of music and display its essence. Yes, one could occasionally see that she was working hard, but her phrasing, her accuracy, and the clarity of musical thought was equal to that of Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern, like Rachmaninoff, displayed her ability to match what Rachmaninoff does on his recordings: supreme accuracy and supreme musicianship, while all the time thinking of the music and not worrying about making an impression on the audience. It was abundantly clear Saturday night that music always comes first with Kern, and that is what spurs her to play. In addition, she most certainly demonstrated that she is capable of playing the aforementioned “murderous figurations” while shaping them, so that they made musical sense rather than sounding like just a series of fast notes. She grasps Rachmaninoff’s huge chords with ease.
I was also struck by the conducting of Maestro James Judd and the performance of the Colorado Symphony in the Rachmaninoff. Judd and Kern perform together as if they had been musical partners for years. There was a wonderful rhythmic thrust throughout the entire work, and in the second movement, the oboe, violas, and cellos were outstanding.
She received a very long standing ovation from an almost full Boettcher Hall. For an encore, Olga Kern played Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which was arranged by Rachmaninoff. Needless to say, it was also outstanding.
As I left the concert hall Saturday evening, I was still in wonderment over Olga Kern’s ability at the keyboard and with music. Like Rachmaninoff, she can play any composer. Unlike many pianists today, she can play Rachmaninoff with ease and a very deep musicality. It would seem that Olga Kern has inherited the mantle of Rachmaninoff’s musicianship, intelligence, and keyboard ability. There was nothing missing in her art.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Ana Spadoni, Blake Nawa'a, Camille Jasensky, Catherine Sailer, David Farwig, Donna Wickham, Heidi Schmidt, Jeff Ayres, Joseph Galema, Katie Lushman, Kevin Gwinn, Kevin Padworski, Miranda Whitesides, Petite Messe Solennelle, Steven Taylor, Taylor Martin
Friday evening, October 10, I attended a concert in Hamilton Hall at DU. It was a performance of one of the least known compositions by Gioachino Rossini: his Petite Messe Solennelle, or Little Solemn Mass. Notice that I omitted one of the Cs in his first name. Gioacchino is usually spelled with two Cs, however Rossini always used one C in his name, and so did most of his acquaintances who wrote letters to him. It has only been recently, in this modern age, that the second C has been added.
Rossini was, of course, one of the most famous figures of the 19th century, and many of his 37 operas which were written between 1810 and 1829 are still being performed. However, the Little Solemn Mass was written in 1863 after many years of inactivity. Musicologists are still unsure of what caused such a hiatus. True, he did write a few works during that period of time: his Stabat Mater in 1832 and a Missa di Gloria which was written for the city of Naples. We also know, that, while he spent most of his time in Paris, he did return to Bologna every now and then. During this period of hiatus, his health began to suffer, and while staying in Bologna he returned to Paris in 1843 for an operation to remove his gallstones. He returned to Paris permanently in 1855.
His Little Solemn Mass is really neither little nor is it solemn. It is full of immense charm as well as more than a little humor, and some musicologists speculate that the dedication of this work to the Countess Louise Pillet-Will (commissioned by her for the dedication of her private chapel) that many people saw in the dedication, “Pillet,” and that somehow transformed the name to “petite.” If that is the case, Rossini, who had a very sly sense of humor, probably enjoyed the confusion. He is known to have written a short letter to God asking if his poor little mass… “is really a mass, or just a mess?” That will give you an idea of his sense of humor. But, humor aside, this is an incredibly sincere religious and personal composition. It was premiered March 14, 1864. Among those in the audience were the composers Auber, Ambroise Thomas, and Meyerbeer. They were dumbfounded by the originality and the beauty of what they heard, and Meyerbeer stood during most of the performance.
The performance Friday evening was truly spectacular. It was led by Maestra Catherine Sailer, who, as you all know by now, is the Director of Choral Studies at the University of Denver. She is also the Associate Conductor of the Colorado Ballet. She led the Evans Choir Friday evening, which is a group of professional singers from the Denver area and selected students from the University of Denver Lamont School of Music. The choir is named after Evans Chapel, where members of the choir performed together in Catherine Sailer’s undergraduate conducting recital.
The Little Solemn Mass does not require an orchestra. Instead, it relies on a piano (the original score required two pianos) and an organ. The pianist was Kevin Padworski, who is the Director of Music and Organist of the Calvary Baptist Church in Denver. His degrees are from the Duke Divinity School and a Master of Music degree in conducting from the University of Denver.
The organist Friday evening was Joseph Galema. And I am sure that all of you readers know that he recently retired as organist and Director of Music at the United States Air Force Academy. He joined the Lamont School of Music in 2008.
From the outset of this performance, it was clear that Maestra Sailer was very firm in her knowledge of how this piece should be performed. Clearly, she was able to communicate that to the pianist, as the ever present compelling humor combined with the compelling emotion arises in the piano preludes to each section of the mass. Indeed, many might find that the meter signatures themselves may be humorous and incongruous for a mass setting, but the depth of emotion that Rossini expresses is undeniable. It is as if he really enjoys his relationship with God. The high point of this mass seems to be the Agnus Dei which is beautifully romantic, and was perfectly done by soprano soloist, Gracie Carr.
There were so many fine soloists in Friday evening’s performance, and Maestra Sailer changed them for each section of the mass. In the opening Gloria, Ana Spadoni, soprano, Miranda Whitesides, mezzo, Blake Nawa’a, tenor, and David Farwig, baritone, were the soloists. The Domine Deus was sung by Kevin Gwinn, a lyric tenor who has one of the most crystal-clear voices I have heard for a long time. Steven Taylor was the bass soloist in the Quoniam. All of these soloists have superb voices, and I have heard some of them sing prior to this performance. I do not know if it was a certain freedom of expression that Rossini allows by virtue of his operatic style of writing, or if it was a mutual appreciation of this particular, rare work, but these voices were exceptional as was their musicianship. The choir sang the Cum Sancto Spiritu with such unbelievable ease, and yet it has a remarkable and rousing rhythm: it is a double fugue that demands a great deal of virtuosity from the choir, but their ease and grace and cheerfulness belied the difficulties.
I must say that Rossini treats the piano in this work as a partner to the choir and soloists, rather than an instrument which is playing something intended for an orchestra. It is abundantly clear that the pianist is playing music specifically written for that instrument, and there is never any insinuation on Rossini’s part that he would have preferred an orchestra. It is very skillfully done – and why not – Rossini was a fine composer. I also hasten to point out that the piano score is very difficult. There are so many small gestures that interrupt the melodic idea, but add to the mood, that pianist Padworski had to work very hard indeed. And often Rossini demands an abrupt change of mood from the pianist, which also crosses to the choir. Of course, that causes Maestra Sailer to work hard as well. But it was wonderful to see such artistic agreement between the piano, organ, choir, and conductor.
The Credo of this Little Solemn Mass made use of the voices of Camille Jasensky, soprano, Heidi Schmidt, mezzo, Blake Nawa’a, tenor, and Jeff Ayres, baritone. It was, again very clear that Catherine Sailer was selective indeed when she chose these soloists. It is very exciting to hear a performance with local musicians who are so gifted, and one wonders where they all come from.
The soloists in the Sanctus were Katie Lushman, soprano, Donna Wickham, mezzo, Taylor Martin, tenor, and David Farwig, baritone. Everyone knows that soloists are supposed to follow the conductor but all of the soloists reflected much more than a willingness to do what Maestra Sailer asked. They clearly demonstrated their enthusiasm for what Rossini wrote. Keep in mind that this composition encompasses a wide range of styles. The Christe eleison sounds almost as if it could come from the 16th century. The Domine Deus seemed almost operatic, and as I stated before, the Agnus Dei is incredibly romantic. But this group of singers, choir and soloists, switched back and forth with great ease, verve, and excitement. Those who do not listen carefully might come to the unwarranted conclusion that this piece is a hodge-podge of styles, but I assure you this is not the case. It is held together by a wonderful melodic line, which returns, and which is sometimes interrupted, for example, by the gusto of the aforementioned double fugue.
This Little Solemn Mass by Gioachino Rossini is as delightful to listen to as it is rare. Everyone in the audience gave this a standing ovation, and I am convinced that it was due not only to the wonderful performance, but as a thank you to being exposed to such a delightful and artful work. As a footnote, the only time I have heard this piece prior to Friday’s performance, was in 1959, when I was put in the choir at my undergraduate school, and it was then conducted by Maestra Fiora Contino. Catherine Sailer’s performance Friday evening made me realize how much I missed this piece, and, while there was a decent audience Friday evening, it made me wish the hall had been full. I can assure you that after hearing this piece of music, the audience responded with the same enthusiasm the musicians demonstrated in performing it. Fifty-five years is a very long time to wait for the next performance of such a wonderful piece. Maestra Sailer, please do it again.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Bahmann Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, César Franck, Cobus Du Toit, Georges Bizet, Gynögyvér Petheö, Joseph Howe, Manuel de Falla, Max Soto, Veronica Pigeon, Victoria Aja
Saturday evening, October 4th, I attended the performance of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra at the Broomfield Auditorium. Their season has been titled Mystique, and Saturday’s performance featured the pianist, Victoria Aja, performing two rarely heard works: Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the Symphonic Variations by Belgian composer César Franck. There were two other works on the concert that night, and, as a matter of fact, they are rarely done as well: Ritual Fire Dance, by Manuel de Falla and the delightful Symphony in C by Georges Bizet.
Maestro Bahman Saless opened the program with the Ritual Fire Dance, which is one Falla’s most popular works. This is a short section from an original ballet, El Amor Brujo, which had been commissioned in 1915 by a dancer named Pastora Imperio. The scene in the ballet where Ritual Fire Dance occurs is a dance done by the character Candela, who is being haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. Candela is encouraged by Gypsies to dance the ritual fire dance in order to get rid of the ghost. As they all dance faster and faster, the ghost appears, is drawn into the flames, and then vanishes forever. This piece became so popular that Manuel de Falla arranged it for piano, and it rapidly became used by several pianists as an encore as well as a programmed work.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra was absolutely superb in capturing the rhythms, melodic mannerisms, and the complete atmosphere of Manuel de Falla’s popular composition. Linda Wilkin is the pianist with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and she was excellent. There were some marvelous flute work and oboe work done by Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto, oboe. The BCO seemed very excited with the performance of this piece, and it was so successful because of this excitement that I wondered why more orchestras do not perform this. It could be that for a while it was extremely popular, and that its popularity rose to the level of a cliché during the 1930s. But I was certainly glad to hear it again. I can remember hearing Arthur Rubenstein perform this years ago, and it always brought the audience to its feet.
The Spanish pianist, Victoria Aja, then joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra to perform Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Manuel de Falla, who wrote this work, lived in Paris for a while where he befriended Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Maurice Ravel. All three of these composers were very appreciative of the values they found in Spanish music, and all three of those composers responded with great enthusiasm to Falla’s music. In addition the Spanish composer, Issac Albéniz, was living in Paris as well, and there was much interchange among all of these composers. For example, Falla, through informal tutelage, learned much about Impressionism, and the French composers learned much about the Spanish model harmonies.
I will briefly quote from Victoria Aja’s bio statement:
“The Spanish Victoria Aja began her musical studies in Bilbao and continued at the Conservatory of Music in Madrid with Manuel Carra (a former student of Manuel de Falla). She then moved to London to perfect her performance. At 18, she won the Luis Coleman contest in Spain followed by the Frank Marshall Academy Competition in Barcelona and obtained the “Rosa Sabater” diploma of the Musica in Compostela. She was invited to play and hold conferences on numerous occasions by the Instituto Cervantes. She recorded an album for EMI devoted to Albéniz, Falla, Turina, Donostia and the pieces by the composer Jesus Guridi for the Naxos label, a record ranking among the American magazine Fanfare’s top records.”
Victoria Aja’s performance of this piece was exhilarating. She has great strength when she plays, and, as one would expect, she is totally at home with this composer. This is not an easy piece to play. The rhythms are extremely demanding, and there are many glissandos (on the piano, a rapid scale effect obtained by sliding the thumb, or thumb and one finger, over the keys) which must end precisely with the orchestra. As a matter of fact, she made use of a fabric pad when she performed some of the glissandos, presumably to protect her hands from being abraded as she slid the backs of her fingers across the keys. Though I have never seen this done before, in this particular composition it might be advisable because there are so many glissandos. There is no question that the audience was in love with this piece. The response to her performance was enthusiastic indeed.
Following the intermission, Victoria Aja performed César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. This is not necessarily a straightforward or simple set of variations: it is a three movement concerto form without interruption, which sometimes seems to use the word “variations” as a catchword. The number of variations, as the program notes point out is still a matter of debate, but many agreed that there are six large variations: 1) a tête-à-tête between piano and orchestra; 2) the theme stated by the cello; 3) a statement of the theme with the piano with strings and woodwinds; 4) and elaboration by the piano with harmonic changes; 5) an expansion of the former; 6) stronger variations in the piano with cello accompaniment.
César Franck (1822-1890) was born in Belgium, however, he spent most of his life in Paris. He was not a terribly prolific composer, but what he wrote is excellent music indeed. He was primarily an organist and composer, but he was also an excellent pianist. He taught at the Paris Conservatory, and his young student, Claude Debussy, studied improvisation with him, though they did not often see eye to eye. César Franck wrote this marvelous piece at the age of 63.
I am extremely familiar with this work, and I found Victoria Aja’s performance to be excellent, but at the same time a little puzzling. For example, I found her tempo to be a little bit on the slow side, and in addition, it seemed that in the lush center section where there is a two-handed arpeggio figuration, she could have been a little bit more legato in her approach. It would be interesting to know what edition of this work she was using, and that might go a long way to explaining her approach. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful performance of a work that is seldom heard. There is no question that she exposed César Franck for the creative master that he was. It is my hope that she performs this piece quite often, as the public needs to know this beautiful work.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra closed their concert with an absolutely masterful performance of Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C Major. The Symphony was written when Bizet (1838-1875) was only 17 years old, presumably as an assignment while he was studying at the Paris Conservatory. Curiously, the work was not discovered until 1933, and it was not performed, as the program notes point out, until 1935.
Maestro Saless and the BCO gave an absolutely delightful performance of this piece. It demonstrates the influence that Mozart had on Bizet, with its transparency and refined textures. Perhaps more than any other work performed on Saturday’s program, the orchestra played this with a marvelous enthusiasm and accuracy of phrasing which accentuated Mozart’s influence. There was no denying that the entire woodwind section and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is absolutely superb. Their performance was so exact that it could not be missed. The enthusiasm with which certain members played was easily noticeable as well. Gynögyvér Petheö and Veronica Pigeon seemed really to be enjoying this symphony, and their enthusiasm was truly hard to miss. Joseph Howe, Principal Cello; Aniel Cabán, Principal Viola, also reflected great enthusiasm. There is a fugue in the second movement of the Symphony, and that can sometimes keep the performers on their toes with dynamics and accents that keep each entrance similar. It was flawless. The entire orchestra made this work light and airy, and it made me think that Georges Bizet must have felt somewhat isolated in Paris because instrumental music was not incredibly popular in the city when he wrote this piece.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless maintains their effortless reputation for excellent and exciting performances. And this season, the music they have programmed is truly exceptional and rarely heard: Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds; Vivaldi’s Gloria; Brahms Haydn Variations; Nielsen’s Flute Concerto; and in May, Chopin’s Concerto nr. 2 in f minor. These are all programs that you cannot miss.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Litton, Brahms, Brook Ferguson, Chad Cognata, Cindy McTee, Gil Shaham, Jason Shafer, Peter Cooper, Tchaikovsky, William Hill
Friday evening, October 3, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, gave a remarkable, world-class performance. Violinist, Gil Shaham was the guest artist, and performed the well-known Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 77. Andrew Litton has wrought such a change in the symphony orchestra that every performance seems more exciting and more perfect than the previous performance. There is no question that he respects the orchestra’s individual musicianship as well as their musicianship as an ensemble. That respect is returned to him by the orchestra, and that mutual respect makes all the difference in the world.
The CSO opened the program with a wonderful piece entitled Timepiece by the American composer, Cindy McTee. For those of you who are not familiar with that name, I will quote briefly from her two bio statements that I found on the web:
“McTee (b. 1953 in Tacoma, WA) has received numerous awards for her music, most significantly: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s third annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award; a Music Alive Award from Meet The Composer and the League of American Orchestras; two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a Guggenheim Fellowship; a Fulbright Fellowship; a Composers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and a BMI Student Composers Award. She was also winner of the 2001 Louisville Orchestra Composition Competition.
”McTee has been commissioned by the Detroit, Houston, Amarillo, Dallas, and National Symphony Orchestras, Bands of America, the American Guild of Organists, the Barlow Endowment, the College Band Directors National Association, and Pi Kappa Lambda.
“She studied at Pacific Lutheran University, the Academy of Music in Kraków, Yale University, and the University of Iowa. Her teachers included Krzysztof Penderecki, Bruce MacCombie, and Jacob Druckman.
“In May of 2011, she retired from the University of North Texas as Regents Professor Emerita, and in November of 2011 she married conductor, Leonard Slatkin [he conducted the St. Louis Symphony for a number of years, and also teaches at the University of Michigan and at Indiana University]. Their principal place of residence is in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.”
Timepiece was commissioned by Andrew Litton when he conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Litton and the Dallas Symphony premiered the work on February 17, 2000. This is a wonderful work which begins softly, and in relatively long note values. If any of you attended this concert, you may have noticed Litton’s conducting movements were quite rapid in relationship to the note values that were being played. This is the first time I have heard this piece, but it also seemed as though the meter signature, and its accompanying accents, changed constantly. There were some wonderful ostinato sections of the piece with an almost locomotive energy that seemed to be accompanied by rhythmic counterpoint. Even though the woodblock in the percussion section tries to keep order, the rhythm is still quite disjunct, and it adds to the forward momentum of the piece. This incredibly complex rhythm sometimes rests underneath the string sections of the orchestra, which, in contrast, produces an almost ephemeral aura. This was a very difficult piece because of the rhythm complexities, and it was a wonderful piece that immediately caught the audiences’ attention. I would not mind hearing it several times in a row, so that I could sort out all of the remarkably creative structures that this piece contains.
Timepiece seemed to take the audience a little by surprise, and their applause at the end seemed to be a little lukewarm. However, it is my hope that the CSO performs more works like this, because we need to know what fills the world of new music.
Following the McTee work, Gil Shaham joined the CSO for the performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, Opus 77. Nearly everyone knows the story behind this concerto, that it was written for the great violinist Joseph Joachim, and that it caused consternation among some conductors of the time, namely Josef Hellmesberger, who made the famous comment that this concerto was “not for the violin, but against the violin.” It is my personal opinion that comments such as that one stem from the fact that Brahms demanded so much from the violin, for example, the extreme range of dynamics. And I must say, that is one of the attributes that made Friday evening’s performance so outstanding.
Gil Shaham is an incredible musician, and he simply demanded from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra the full range of dynamics of which they are capable. It has been a long time since I have heard this concerto performed to this level, and I am sure that he was grateful at having a conductor of Litton’s ilk conduct this performance. He played so softly sometimes that the orchestra had to work very hard (as a group) to play softly themselves so as not to cover him. There is no question that Litton and Shaham were in complete agreement, and that their performance of this piece was to make absolute music, and not make a display of each other’s virtuosity. The result was an incredibly intimate performance, particularly of the first movement, but, mind you, the other movements have their own superlative characteristics. Brahms’ orchestration of the second movement is absolutely remarkable because of its blend of woodwinds and strings. Peter Cooper, oboe, Jason Shafer, clarinet, Brooke Ferguson, flute, and Chad Cognata, bassoon, were absolutely incredible in the dynamic shaping of the phrases of the opening theme, which matched so well the phrasing that Shaham performed on his violin. Again, it reflected the concern with the music, rather than concern with everyone’s ego. I have heard so many performances of this piece by famous violinists, who seem to have the desire to dazzle the audience with gargantuan technique rather than a sincere desire to show what the composer wanted. The entire woodwind section of the Colorado Symphony is truly outstanding, and provides a solid backbone of the orchestra, particularly in a work such as the Brahms concerto.
It was also very clear that Gil Shaham was enjoying his relationship with the orchestra. There were some beautiful moments of give-and-take with the violin section of the orchestra, wherein Shaham seemed to be playing to concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams, and she seemed to be returning the gesture in kind.
The third movement of this concerto was exciting because of the incredibly detailed and careful (but not cautious) execution of the rhythmic jabs that Brahms wrote. The brilliant staccato octaves with their dotted rhythm were precisely and excitingly done by Gil Shaham, and were an incredible contrast to the very gracious and charming dolce theme. The drive in the last movement of this concerto often reminds me of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. It was a sensational performance that was built around a love of the music itself by Gil Shaham, and certainly Maestro Litton and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Following the intermission, Maestro Litton in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 in E minor, Opus 64. There was an 11 year gap of symphonic composition on Tchaikovsky’s part between the fourth and the fifth symphonies. Number Five was written in 1888. He wrote to his benefactress, Najeda Von Meck, that he wished to write a symphony of the greatest possible state of perfection to avoid the criticism that had been directed towards his previous symphonic compositions. Tchaikovsky, himself, conducted the premier on November 16, 1888. Its reception was lukewarm, particularly the performance in Prague, and he came to the conclusion that this symphony was a failure in comparison to his Fourth Symphony. Today, I am quite sure that all of the scholars and audiences agree that Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 is one of his best.
Friday evening’s performance of this work was simply the best I have ever heard, and I have heard many orchestras perform this piece. In the first movement, the wonderful woodwind section of the Colorado Symphony displayed what they are capable of, and it was sheer music. I might add that Maestro Litton conducted this work from memory, and that reflects not only his vast knowledge of symphonic literature, which he certainly has as a matter of course, but it also reflects his love for this particular work. The tempos that he took in every movement were, without exaggeration, perfect. The second movement for example, starts with a very slow tempo, and so many conductors seem to approach it with an attitude of, “Oh dear, the hard Russian winters have kept old pathos fresh.” That certainly was not the case with Lipton’s conducting Friday evening. Yes, the tempo was slow -after all, it is marked Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza (with a certain freedom). Litton’s tempo gave the movement a marvelous sense of forward motion, and yet, let the incredible clarinet solo stand out in its expressiveness. The third movement is not the usual Scherzo, or Minuet: Tchaikovsky has clearly marked it Waltz. Litton’s tempo was graceful and charming and perfect. And, even in this movement, Tchaikovsky repeats the haunting theme from the first movement.
The fourth movement of this work seem to emphasize the long introduction, for the true exposition begins in measure 58. It was wonderfully exciting, wonderfully dramatic, and the repetition of the main theme brought the entire work to a wonderfully conceived conclusion. When I say wonderfully conceived, I am not referring to Tchaikovsky’s skill as a composer, which would be silly to comment on at this late date: we know he was a great composer. I am referring to the interpretation that Litton gave this work. I cannot emphasize clearly enough that this was the best performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 that I have heard. Jason Shafer, clarinet, indeed, the entire woodwind section, and William Hill, tympani, were absolutely amazing.
Friday evening’s performance made me reflect upon today’s fast-moving lifestyle which has resulted in so many people having a very short attention span. As I have said, there is music everywhere: elevator music, telephone hold music, short music segments between broadcasts on the radio, and all of this results in the confusion between culture and art. It results in the aforementioned short attention span, if not the complete ignorance of what music as an art can be. It seems that the days even of careful reading, holding an actual book in your hand, while the late afternoon sunlight streams in through a slight opening in the drapes, are gone. That carefulness, that appreciation, that ability to listen un-hurriedly to a complete work, the pre-Internet concern for artful things, is what I was reminded of at Friday evening’s performance by the Colorado Symphony.
Boettcher Concert Hall was far from full Friday evening. Was it because so many individuals don’t wish to take the time to listen? The audience on Friday gave the CSO two standing ovations. You will have the opportunity to hear this program tonight at 7:30, and again tomorrow at 1:00 PM.
Filed under: Reviews
Dies Irae ~ Day of Wrath
In a town that treasures its “quirky” identity and leans toward the avant-garde, premieres are frequent highlights in a wide range of musical concerts offered in Boulder. But for a Boulder ensemble that specializes in music written 300 – 350 years ago, premieres can be hard to come by. This fall, Seicento Baroque Ensemble proves that Boulder and Denver audiences can be treated to the unique experience of hearing music very few others have ever heard performed live, even from Seicento’s favorite period — the baroque era.
The concert’s title work, Dies Irae, written by French composer Michel de Lalande in 1690, has a mysterious history that will be revealed at the October 31/November 1 concerts. In modern times, the piece has been performed only in Europe, and that has happened in just the past 25 years. Seicento will present not just the United States premiere but the first live performance in all of the Americas! A French composer and organist in the service of King Louis XIV, Lalande was one of the most important composers of les grands motets and his works foreshadowed the cantatas of Bach and Handel.
Now beginning its fourth season, Seicento Baroque Ensemble, an auditioned choir, was founded to fill the previously unmet early baroque niche in the region’s choral music scene, and is led by Artistic Director Evanne Browne.
As usual, the choir, trained in historically-informed styles, will be accompanied by period instruments and will feature the vocal solo work of Amanda Balestrieri (soprano), Marjorie Bunday (alto), Steven Soph (tenor) and Ryan Parker (baritone). A pre-concert talk about the music and the period will be given by Dr. Deborah Kauffman.
The rest of the concert is equally custom-made for the season, including the witches scene from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Der Gerechte kommt um (“The righteous perish”) by Kuhnau (arranged by Bach), Vidi turbam magnam by Cannicciari, De profundis clamavi (“Out of the depths I cry”) also by Lalande, and Bertulosi’s O quam gloriosum est regnum. A special Halloween treat for the audience will be a performance of the famous “scary” Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, played by Kajsa Teitelbaum.
Browne noted that the concert will be dedicated to the late Christopher Hogwood who, as a musicologist, conductor and founder of the Academy of Ancient Music, had a major influence in the resurgence of interest in the historically informed performance of baroque music.
The Ensemble gratefully acknowledges the support of Colorado Creative Industries which recently awarded Seicento a significant operations grant.
Friday, October 31, 7:30 pm (6:45 pre-concert talk)
St. Paul Lutheran Church
1600 Grant Street
Saturday, November 1, 7:30 pm (6:45 pre-concert talk)
First United Methodist Church
1421 Spruce Street
Boulder, CO 80302
Tickets: $20, $18, $10
For further information and to purchase tickets: http://www.seicentobaroque.org
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Joel Schoenhals, John Elwes, MeeAe Nam, Pierre de Ronsard, Théodore Gouvy, Toccata Classics
I know that there are many of you readers who remember the mellifluous voice and supreme artistry of soprano MeeAe Nam. She left Denver a few years ago to teach at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and she is still continuing her rigorous performance schedule throughout the world, giving concerts, conducting workshops and lecturing at conferences. I am happy to announce that you will now be able to hear her voice almost any time you wish, because she has recorded a CD (Toccata Classics) of some of the songs by the obscure French composer, Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898).
Before I discuss the CD, I will provide with a very brief outline of Théodore Gouvy’s biography.
Louis Théodore Gouvy was born on July 3, 1819, in Goffontaine (today it is Schafbrücke, in the district of Saarbrücken, in Germany). Pierre Gouvy, his grandfather, opened the first steel mill of the four that the family eventually owned, built the workers’ apartments, and, expanding them to a considerable housing complex, gave it the name Goffontaine. His son, Henri (Theodore’s father), ran the steel mill as did his son Henri, Theodore’s oldest brother. The area of the Lorraine where he spent his childhood had a huge impact on Théodore’s life: not long before he was born, the border had moved because of the Second Treaty of Paris in 1815, and his home was now considered to be in Germany. Thus his brothers were French, but he was technically German.
In spite of his love for the arts and languages, he was encouraged to become a lawyer to assist in running the family steel mills; however, after graduating from the University of Paris, he failed the French equivalent of the bar exams twice because of his preoccupation with music. When he tried to enroll in the Paris Conservatory, Luigi Cherubini, then the Director, refused to admit Gouvy because he considered him to be German. Not to be daunted, Gouvy paid the faculty surreptitiously for several years and received a very good education in music. He eventually became a close friend with all of the leading composers of his time: Berlioz, Liszt (with whom he often played cards), Mendelssohn, Spohr, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, and many others.
His works were performed in all the major cities in Europe including Amsterdam, Berlin, Bern, Brussels, Cologne, Dresden, Leipzig, London, Munich, and Vienna. They were even heard in New York where his works were commissioned by the Philharmonic Club of New York. His works include a large number of songs, piano sonatas and miniature piano pieces, piano trios, string quartets, chamber music for winds, a Requiem Mass, a Stabat Mater, symphonies, and many works for chorus and orchestra. He was awarded the highest honors: the Prix Chartier bestowed on him by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and membership of that body, the Légion d’Honneur, and membership in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.
You must understand that Dr. MeeAe Nam is not only a performer, but she is a very accomplished scholar, and she is one of the few individuals in the United States that is thoroughly familiar with the works of Théodore Gouvy. For those of you who may not be familiar with her work, I will quote briefly from her bio statement. In addition I will also quote from the bio statements of those who join her on the CD. Appearing with her is a wonderful tenor from England, John Elwes. The pianist is Joel Schoenhals.
“[Dr. MeeAe Nam] has appeared as guest artist with numerous ensembles including the Colorado Symphony, Boulder Philharmonic, Boulder Bach Festival, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, Evergreen Chamber Orchestra, the Jefferson Symphony, the Ariel Trio, the DaVinci String Quartet, the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, Fort Collins Symphony and Colorado Chamber Players, Augustana Chamber Orchestra, Colorado Ballet and Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra.
“Dr. Nam earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Nam joined the faculty of the Music & Dance Department at Eastern Michigan University in 2009 as Assistant Professor of Voice. She previously taught voice at Metropolitan State College of Denver where she served as chair of the vocal studies program for 5 years and also founded and directed the annual “Vocal Arts Competition for Young Colorado Musicians”. As lecturer and vocal clinician Dr. Nam frequently travels throughout the United States and South Korea to give vocal workshops at conferences and Universities. Repeatedly, she was a guest recitalist and lecturer for the Colorado State Music Teachers Association and also gave a lecture recital at the MTNA National Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her students have been active in national and international competitions and music festivals. This year Dr. Nam appeared as advisor and guest artist clinician in the first annual Seoul International Opera Festival, where three of her students performed lead roles in Mozart’s Magic Flute.
“With her husband, Dr. Horst Buchholz, organist and conductor, she has given numerous recitals for organ and voice in Germany and Austria including performances during the Salzburg International Summer Music Festival. Her excellent understanding of works by Mozart led her to perform many soprano solos in Mozart’s sacred works, as well as Requiem and Exultate, jubilate with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the 250th anniversary year of Mozart’s birth during Salzburg Festival. This year she will appear as guest artist in Bach’s Wedding Cantata with the Boulder Bach Festival and in Monteverdi’s Love Songs with the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado.”
“John Joseph Elwes (original name John Hahessy) (born 20 October 1946) is an English tenor singer. Born in Westminster, he was Head Chorister in the choir of Westminster Cathedral, London. His musical and vocal education were furthered by the eminent harpsichordist George Malcolm, the then Director of Music.
“Under the name of John Hahessy (his father was from Carrick-on-Suir, Co.Waterford, Ireland) he had considerable success as a boy soprano – from BBC broadcasts and recordings with Decca to concerts with such conductors as Benjamin Britten. He made the 1st recording of Benjamin Britten’s Canticle Abraham and Isaac, singing the role of Isaac, accompanied by the composer. Britten later dedicated his Corpus Christi Carol to him. He went on to study at the Royal College of Music, and made his stage debut as a tenor in 1968 at The Proms.
“John Elwes is particularly well known for his sensitive and musical performances. His repertoire is extensive ranging from Monteverdi, Rameau, Bach and Handel to Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Britten. He regularly performs with the leading conductors of baroque, classical and contemporary music. He has sung in over one hundred recordings, including Dowland’s First Book of Ayres, Schubert’s song cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Purcell’s The Tempest, Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mass in B minor, Handel’s Messiah and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, for which he was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2008.”
“A dedicated teacher, Joel Schoenhals is active in local and state chapters of MTNA and was featured as the keynote artist for the Idaho Music Teachers Association state convention. He presented lecture recitals and a master class at the Oregon Music Teachers Association state convention, and presented lecture-recitals at MTNA national conventions in Kansas City and Austin. He was a featured artist, judge, and teacher at the Besparmak International Piano Festival in North Cyprus and has performed concerts in China and South America. He is currently performing the cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in eight concerts between 2012 and 2016.
“Schoenhals holds a Master of Music, Doctoral of Musical Arts, and Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music. He earned his undergraduate degree in piano performance at Vanderbilt University. From 1998-2010, he was a faculty member of the Summer Piano Program at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York.
“In his recording of twenty Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs, [Dr.]Schoenhals cultivates a beautiful, well-paced tone that is always easy on the ear. His sense of flow in the interpretation of these pieces enhances the idea of narratives without words that Liszt aimed to achieve” (Classik Reviews). “Seek this one out and find one of the greatest releases of the year (Liszt). Now if someone would only help me to close my jaw, hung open by the second track. Only then can I return to mundane existence” (American Record Guide). “Schoenhals awakens Schubert’s exuberance, lifts it from piercing melancholy to ecstatic flights, and touches the throbbing heart of Liszt’s recreations in a way that persuades us the piano is indeed a viable, if not preeminent, medium for so much vocally conceived music. Schoenhals is passionate . . . impetuous . . . radiant. There’s abundant pleasure to be found here” (Fanfare).”
As Nam and Elwes point out in the CD program notes, Gouvy’s songs were not well known in his lifetime, nor are they well-known today. This has always been startling to me, because Gouvy was known for writing some of the most beautiful melodic lines of the Romantic period. His style is a combination, a wonderful fitting together if you will, of German forms and an early French romantic harmonic structure. His writing for the piano in the songs is totally unified in mood and description with the voice, just as the piano is in Schubert’s songs. Of course, this is the way it must be, but there are still many concert attendees who consider the pianist as an accompanist, rather than an artist of equal importance in song literature.
And, there is one other crucial aspect of this CD which marks its importance: only 11 of these songs have ever been recorded before, and the 26 songs on this CD are done exactly the way Théodore Gouvy wanted them. They are sung in the original key in which they were written. This has a great impact on the way the songs’ sound. Both Nam and Elwes have the ability to sing the songs without transposing them to a different key just to fit the vocal range or to make them easier. The result in sound is very exciting because it is precisely what Gouvy had in mind.
Aside from being a pianist and composer, Théodore Gouvy was also a linguist. He very much enjoyed the Renaissance poetry of Pierre de Ronsard, and the songs on the CD are largely by that Renaissance poet.
I am quite familiar with the Gouvy’s works, but the melodic lines in his songs never fail to startle me. Not only are they difficult, but they soar into almost unimaginable heights with unbridled passion. Both MeeAe Nam and John Elwes are capable of such melodic flow at these heights, the passion they bring to these melodic lines is unlimited. There is no question in my mind that Pierre de Ronsard is the most passionate of the poets represented on this CD, and, certainly, there is no doubt in my mind that Gouvy feels a kinship with this poet. What is truly amazing about Nam and Elwes and Schoenhals is their ability to communicate that passion so easily. Nam and Elwes have truly remarkable vocal production – and I count breath control in that production – so that their phrasing is absolutely impeccable. And, it always seems as if Joel Schoenhals is breathing with them because he is as intent on helping them shape their phrases as they are helping him shape his phrases. It has been a very long time since I have heard such mutual artistry (and artistic agreement) between vocalists and pianist. How is it possible that anyone can be more expressive than MeeAe Nam in the 16th track of the CD where she sings (and I will use the title in English) The draw of your beautiful eyes:
Since by loving you I can have no better,
Allow at least, that in dying I might sigh.
Is it not enough to witness my martyrdom,
Without you mocking my troubled pain.
Or in the 4th track of the CD, What are you saying, what are you doing, my sweetheart?
I have your beauties, your grace and your eyes,
Engraved in me and I wander in a thousand places,
Where I saw you dance, speak and laugh,
I hold you as mine and yet am not my own self,
In you alone, in you my soul breathes…
Or in track seven, were Elwes sings À Hélène:
You had still a child’s countenance,
Speech, gait, your mouth was beautiful,
Your brow and your hands, worthy of an immortal,
Your eyes that make me die as I think of them.
There are so many more instances not only of these vocalists’ art, but the art of the poet as well. And, truly, all of this is reflected by the art of Dr. Joel Schoenhals, who is superb.
It certainly deserves mention that Toccata Classics, the label of this fine CD, specializes in producing “Forgotten music by great composers, and great music by forgotten composers.” You really must visit their website because it is a perfect example of preserving works and composers who need to be heard.
The details of this CD are: Théodore Gouvy: Songs to texts by Pierre de Ronsard and other Renaissance Poets. MeeAe Nam, soprano; John Elwes, tenor; and Joel Schoenhals, piano. The catalog number for this recording is: Toccata Classics TOCC 0269.