Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Ewing, Amanda Balestrieri, Becca Tice, Evanne Browne, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Hermann Schein, Marjorie Bunday, Mary Springfels, Michael Lui, René Schiffer, Samuel Scheidt, Sandra Miller, Steven Soph, Tina Chancey, Yayoi Barrack
Friday evening, March 21, the Seicento Baroque Ensemble under the direction of Maestra Evanne Browne presented a truly fine program entitled Voices and Viols at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in Denver. The program centered on the music of German composers Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654).
This was a very refreshing program in many ways. Schütz, Schein, and Scheidt are seldom heard because they are often overshadowed by the composer who followed them by roughly 100 years, J.S. Bach. But these three composers had a remarkable impact in the early Baroque, which was roughly 1600 to the year 1750. Please note the use of the word “roughly,” and realize that these dates are approximations because many characteristics of Baroque music were in evidence before 1600 and many disappeared before 1750.
Friday evening’s program opened with a work, Herr, Unser Herrscher (Lord, our Sovereign) from the Psalmen Davids, by Heinrich Schütz. Schütz was probably the greatest German composer and one of the most important figures to bridge the gap between the stile antico and stile moderno (conservative versus progressive). Schütz went to Venice and studied with Giovanni Gabrieli for three years from 1609 to 1612. Following his sojourn in Italy, he became the Kapellmeister for the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. The employment was interrupted by the Thirty Years War, during which he became the Court Conductor in Copenhagen. The beautiful work performed by the Seicento Baroque Ensemble is a concertato – a chorale style composition in which a contrast is provided by the instrumental accompaniment to the florid vocal solos. The Psalmen Davids, and hence Herr, Unser Herrscher, is for multiple choruses and soloists, plus continuo, which was wonderfully performed in almost every piece Friday evening by Michael Lui on the portative organ. The soloist in this particular work was tenor, Steven Soph. Soph has appeared several times in Denver, but for the benefit of you readers who are not terribly familiar with him, I will include a short bio statement which was kindly supplied to me by Becca Tice, who is the Publicity Officer on the board:
“Steven Soph (tenor) has been praised by critics as a ‘superb vocal soloist’ (Washington Post) possessing a ‘sweetly soaring tenor’ (Dallas Morning News) of ‘impressive clarity and color’ (New York Times). Mr. Soph’s upcoming solo engagements include Mozart’s Mass in C-minor with Yale Choral Artists, Bach’s Mass in B-minor and St. John Passion with Spire and Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Chicago Chorale, and Bach’s Mass in B-minor with Symphony Orchestra Augusta. 2013 marked his Cleveland Symphony solo debut under Ton Koopman in an all-Handel program in Severance Hall. Recent highlights include Evangelist in Bach’s St. John Passion with Chicago Chorale, arias in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Voices of Ascension, NYC, as well as with the Colorado Bach Ensemble, and appearing as a Young American Artist with the City Choir of Washington, D.C. Mr. Soph performs with Seraphic Fire, Conspirare, Yale Choral Artists, Musica Sacra, Tucson Chamber Artists, Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Clarion Music, Cut Circle, Spire, and Sounding Light. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music.”
The Seicento choir is made of thirty-one members, many of whom sing with other choral groups in the area. The blend of this choir simply could not be better: their voices are big, and the number of singers in each section creates a huge sound. However, there is no doubt that Maestra Browne has spent some time with the choir working on diction. But do not doubt the quality of this choir. As I stated, many of the members have considerable experience, and that is something everyone demonstrated Friday evening. Steven Soph was excellent, as I have come to expect from him. He has a wonderful voice quality and such a range that it sometimes borders on that of a heldentenor.
There were five viola da gamba performers in the orchestra that, like the vocal soloists, have performed many times in Denver. They were Yayoi Barrack, Tina Chancey, Sandra Miller, René Schiffer, and Mary Springfels. The sound of these instruments is rich and warm, and having six of the same instrument accompanying the choir would not have been unusual during Schütz’s day. These instruments strongly resemble cellos, but there is no peg to rest on the floor: they must be held with the lower leg. In addition, unlike a modern cello, some have six string sand some have seven, rather than four. I mention all of this, because I feel it is necessary for all of you audience members who were there, and for all of you readers who were not, to understand that one of the pleasures of Friday evening’s performance was its authenticity: the choir was not overly large; the viola da gambas were authentic, as was the portative organ. I sincerely believe that Heinrich Schütz would have been quite pleased.
The next work that really caught my attention was a work by Johann Hermann Schein. It was entitled Christ Unser Herr zum Jordan Kam, which translated is “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan River.” Schein was born just a year apart from both Schütz and Scheidt. And, of course, all three of these composers were instrumental in forming a new identity for the early German Baroque. Schein eventually became the Kantor of music at St. Thomas in Leipzig in 1616, and this is the same church where J.S. Bach was to eventually become Kantor. Unfortunately, Schein seems to have been beset by misfortunes which slowed the process of his professional life: his first wife died; all of the children by his second wife died before reaching adulthood, and even his own health suffered from tuberculosis and scurvy. He was only forty-four years of age when he died in 1630.
The Schein work that the Seicento Baroque Ensemble performed Friday evening comes from his Opella Nova which has to be considered a milestone in the development of the then new, modern aforementioned Chorale concertato. This work made use of soprano Amanda Balestrieri and alto Marjorie Bunday. Since both of these musicians perform frequently in Denver (and elsewhere) I see no need for a bio statement here. Both of these soloists were spectacular Friday evening. Both have absolutely incredible voice quality and vocal production. In addition, it truly seemed that both of these fine musicians were truly enjoying the performance of Schein’s work. I suspect that there were many in the audience who have not heard a great deal of music from this period of time – the crossover from very late Renaissance to the early Baroque. The choir plus Balestrieri and Bunday clearly demonstrated that rarely performed music can be incredibly beautiful and interesting. They also whetted the appetite for more music from this period.
I must say that the work on Friday’s program that riveted my attention, and I think the rest of the audience, was entitled Die Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (The Seven Words of Jesus Christ Upon the Cross). Composed by Heinrich Schütz, most scholars agree that it may have been written in 1657. Even so, there is no doubt that this work was one of Schütz’ most mature works, it is scored for five soloists: soprano, alto, two tenors, and baritone. The second tenor was a choir member, but I could find no place in the program where his name was mentioned. The baritone in this work, and throughout the evening, was Adam Ewing. Mr. Ewing has sung frequently throughout Colorado, but not so frequently that all of you readers may know precisely who he is. Therefore, I will quote briefly from a bio:
“Adam Ewing (baritone) currently is pursuing a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in vocal performance at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he studies with Patrick Mason. He is a frequent performer along the Front Range, singing with the Boulder Bach Festival and the Denver Early Music Consort. He was a founding member of the ensembles An die Musik and Vox Reflexa, and also sang with Indiana University’s Pro Arte choir, groups dedicated primarily to early and 20th century music. In addition, Mr. Ewing participates in Central City Opera’s Community Education and Enrichment programs, where he helps to introduce students across the Denver Metro area to opera and orchestral music. In addition to dramatic works, Ewing is an avid performer of art song. He spent a month in Canada as a student at the Vancouver International Song Institute. He has sung in master classes and recitals for Roger Vignoles, William Bolcom, Lori Laitman, Jake Heggie, and Libby Larsen. Mr. Ewing is an alumnus of Phi Mu Alpha, a national men’s music fraternity.”
This work had some astounding harmonies in it, which almost sounded as if they could have come from the Romantic period 200 years in the future. There were still some cadences (phrase endings) that were clearly identifiable as in the very early Baroque or very late Renaissance style. And I must say that it was entirely in keeping with this style that the soloists did not exaggerate the drama of the text, but rather, simply left it as a deeply moving meditation summed up by the choir with the text: “He who honors God’s martyrdom and remembers the seven words, God will care for with his grace, surely here on earth and there in the eternal life.” The choir was superb in this work as were all five soloists.
Following the work by Schütz, Seicento Baroque Ensemble performed the Surrexit Christus Hodie (Christ is risen today) by Samuel Scheidt from his collection entitled Cantiones Sacrae. Scheidt’s ability on the organ, and his compositions for organ, have often overshadowed his vocal music. But it is in his vocal music that each phrase of the chorale melody can sometimes have a different rhythmic idea, and it is that emphasis on rhythmic variety which sets them apart from Schein and Schütz. The performance of Scheidt’s Surrexit Christus Hodie was absolutely electrifying because of its infectious joy and the energy with which contralto Marjorie Bunday always imbues her performance.
Friday’s performance of rare music is something that needs to receive the attention by every concert audience in the Denver Metro area. It will be repeated Saturday, March 22, at 7:30 PM at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder, and again on Sunday, March 23 at 2 PM at the Stanley Hotel Concert Hall in Estes Park. The Seicento Baroque Ensemble is a relatively new organization which deserves our attention. Maestra Evanne Browne has chosen her program well and certainly made some terrific decisions in her choice of soloists and instrumentalists. This was a delightful concert which deserves more attention than I am able to give it here. It was authentically performed and it also broadens our scope of music from a period that is often ignored. It gave us a wonderful window into the world of German music before the age of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Ewing, Alessandro Marcello, Amanad Balestrieri, Anna Marsh, Boulder Bach Festival, Daniel Hutchings, J. S. Bach, Kristin Olson, Marjorie Bunday, St. John's Episcopal Church, Zachary Carrettin
Friday evening, February 21, the Boulder Bach Festival traveled to St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, where they presented an outstanding concert of Bach (1685-1750), and the remarkable Venetian composer, Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747). It is not often that we get to hear three Bach cantatas on one program, so those in the audience received quite a treat.
For those of you who are not quite sure what a cantata is, it is a vocal and instrumental form that is particular to the Baroque period. It can contain several movements (and usually does) such as arias, recitatives, duets, and choruses which are based on religious texts. However, there are also secular cantatas, which were more popular in Italy. Bach’s cantatas were mostly of the sacred variety, cantata da chiesa, but he also composed secular cantatas known as cantata da camera. The cantatas performed at Friday’s concert were all church cantatas, or cantata da chiesa.
For those of you to whom Zachary Carrettin is new, I will include an abbreviated biographical quote from his website. He is the new Music Director of the Boulder Bach Festival.
“Zachary Carrettin is a gifted and impassioned musician whose accomplishments as a music director, conductor, violin soloist, and educator have earned him international recognition well beyond his years. He currently balances symphonic and choral conducting, teaching, and performing while serving as director of orchestras at Sam Houston State University, and music director of the Boulder Bach Festival.
“Carrettin made his conducting debut with the Royal Philharmonic of Kishinev, Moldavia, and soon thereafter conducted the Symphony Orchestra of the Theatre Vorpommern in Germany and the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. He has conducted numerous soloists in projects ranging from baroque and classical-period instruments to contemporary instruments and repertory.
“Zachary Carrettin holds bachelor and master of music degrees in violin performance from Rice University Shepherd School of Music, and a master of music degree in conducting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studied orchestral, choral, opera, and wind ensemble conducting in Bucharest, Romania, and pursued studies in the doctor of musical arts program at Rice University. For more information, visit http://www.zacharycarrettin.com.”
At the beginning of the program Friday evening, there was the usual tuning amongst the instrumental ensemble. There is nothing at all unusual about that. As the starting time of 7:30 PM arrived, Maestro Carrettin calmly walked “on stage” and began to tune his violin. He is an absolutely remarkable violinist, so I made the assumption that he was going to perform in the Marcello Concerto for Oboe. However, he soon began to play a solo work by J. S. Bach, which I think was a toccata for violin. It was not mentioned in the program, nor was it announced by anyone. It was quite a short piece, but it was absolutely beautifully done. The casual demeanor of Maestro Carrettin and the fact that there were a few other instrumentalists on stage, seemed to take the audience by surprise.
Following the short work, Zachary Carrettin certainly did join the Boulder Bach Players to perform Alessandro Marcello’s beautiful Concerto for Oboe in D minor. The oboe soloist was Kristin Olson.
Quoting from Ms. Olson’s bio statement:
“Kristin Olson performs regularly on both modern and historical instruments. As an early music specialist, she has played with such notable conductors as William Christie, Richard Egarr, Philipe Herreweghe, and Jordi Savall. Kristin’s interest in early music began during her undergraduate studies, but first she pursued a modern orchestra career, playing in Mexico with La Orquesta Sinfonica Sinaloa de las Artes for several seasons. She eventually attended the Juilliard School, graduating from their new Historical Performance program on baroque oboe. Kristin is now co-artistic director for several ensembles, including SacroProfano on the west coast, and Grand Harmonie on the east coast. As an entrepreneur, she has been featured on PBS and in Symphony Magazine for success with her reed-making business, Reed Lizard. Her business caters to all oboe and bassoon players, but stands out as one of the only places in the country to purchase historical oboe and bassoon reeds. Kristin holds degrees from the California Institute of the Arts, the University of Southern California, and the Juilliard School. Sometimes she is also seen performing on baritone saxophone. For more information, visit http://www.reedlizard.com or http://www.kristinoboe.com.”
Alessandro Marcello was not only a composer but was an accomplished painter, inventor, bibliophile, instrument collector, and violinist. Because he was a nobleman, he was also expected to serve in various government posts, and was on the Criminal Council of 40 in Venice. Because of his governmental positions, he did not publish a great deal of music; however, there is no question that he was a very serious musician of considerable capability. The Concerto for Oboe in D minor is without a doubt his most famous composition. It is in three movements, with the first and third quite lyrical, and, I might add, very different from his Venetian contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. It is the second movement of this concerto that continues to capture the most attention. It is an introspective and deeply felt Adagio which exhibits true pathos. Bach certainly knew this piece, for he transcribed it for solo harpsichord.
Ms. Olson’s performance of this piece was absolutely beautiful. She has amazing breath control, and her ability on the Baroque oboe was something to behold. Her tone was lush and warm, and in the second movement, her ornamentation, which was historically correct, served to increase the movement’s remarkable sense of loss and despair. This was only the second time I have heard this concerto performed live, the first being in undergraduate school when it was performed by Professor Jerry Sirucek. This was an exquisite performance by everyone on stage.
Following Kristin Olson’s performance, the Boulder Bach Festival performed J.S. Bach’s Cantata Der Herr denkt an uns (The Lord thinks on us…), BWV 196. You readers must remember that BWV is the abbreviation for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the thematic catalogue of Bach’s works organized by Wolfgang Schmieder (1909-1990). The soloists in this cantata were soprano Amanda Balestrieri, Daniel Hutchings, tenor, and Adam Ewing, bass. This was very well done. As the excellent program notes point out, there is no mistaking this work for a late work of Bach’s, because the counterpoint and melodic imitation reminds one of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707). The blend of the choir was absolutely marvelous, though, from time to time, their diction was not always clear. Amanda Balestrieri has an absolutely wonderful soprano voice and gave a pronounced air of cheerfulness in this cantata. However, like the choir, from time to time her diction was not as excellent as it has been in the past. Daniel Hutchings and Adam Ewing were beyond compare. Their vocal production allows them the ability to have excellent diction, and they are also possessed of an infinite variety of emotions.
Following this cantata, the Boulder Bach Chorus performed a motet by Bach, his well-known Komm, Jesu, komm, (Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary…). The motet was originally one of the most important forms of polyphonic music, but by Bach’s time, its a cappella style had fallen by the wayside and solo voices as well as instrumental accompaniment were used. The Baroque composers allowed themselves more variety of styles: alternation of singers and instruments, expressive vocal lines, solo voices, and certain echo effects, which made it quite difficult to distinguish between secular and sacred motets. The diction of the choir in this work, as well as that of the soloists, was considerably better than the opening cantata.
Following the intermission, Maestro Carrettin performed the Bach Cantata, BWV 150: Nach dir Herr, verlanget mich (For you, Lord, I am longing…). This work featured soloists Amanda Balestrieri, Marjorie Bunday, Daniel Hutchings, and Adam Ewing. Amanda Balestrieri sang a wonderful aria solo in this cantata, and her diction was well-nigh perfect in this work. Marjorie Bunday was exceptional as well.
The following cantata, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to you.) was superbly done by everyone on stage. I would also like to point out that another member of the Boulder Bach Festival Players, the bassoonist, Anna Marsh, was truly outstanding.
The following is from Ms. Marsh’s bio statement:
“Anna Marsh is originally from Tacoma, WA, and owns six bassoons from the Renaissance to the modern era. She also enjoys trying new restaurants, porcelain painting and exploring National Parks with her friends. She appears regularly with Tempesta di Mare, Opera Atelier, Tafelmusik, Arion Baroque Orchestra, Atlanta Baroque, Seattle Baroque, Opera Lafayette, Ensemble Caprice, Washington Bach Consort and Clarion Music Society. This season she will play concertos with New York State Baroque and the Boulder Bach Festival and will also appear at Versailles. She has been a featured concerto soloist with the Arion Baroque Orchestra in Montreal, The Dryden Ensemble in Princeton, Foundling Orchestra in Providence, Buxtehude Consort in Philadelphia, Americantiga Orchestra in Washington DC, the USC Early Music Ensemble and the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra… Anna is ABD [an informal expression denoting All But Dissertation] for her Doctorate at Indiana University and has recorded for Analekta, ATMA, CBC Radio, NPR, Centaur, Avie, Naxos, the Super Bowl and Musica Omnia Record Labels.”
This was a truly enjoyable concert, but I was occasionally surprised by the almost casual manner in which Maestro Zachary Carrettin (who, I stress, is a masterful musician in every way) took the stage. This resulted many times in the audience not being sure whether they should applaud his entrance, as is customary for the conductor. Indeed, after the intermission, he was tuning his violin with a few of the other musicians. The tuning went on for some time, when he obviously became concerned that the soloists had not come out to perform. He hurriedly left stage to seek out the performers, who joined him, finally, much to amusement of the audience. Perhaps, a very authoritative stride to the podium, as is de rigueur, would be more useful. But, please understand that this is hardly a permanent blot on the record of such an outstanding musician.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Brett Kostrzewski, Celctic Folksongs, Leslie Soich, Marjorie Bunday, Partsongs, St. Martin's Chamber Choir, Taylor Martin, Timothy J. Krueger
Friday evening, February 7, I attended the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir performance entitled, Celtic Echoes. The program consisted of British Folksongs and Partsongs, several of which would be easily recognized by most concertgoers. Among those were Greensleeves, Loch Lomond, and Irish Tune From County Derry.
It may be helpful for some of you readers to understand exactly what a partsong is. The term partsong refers to a homophonic style wherein the upper voice carries the melodic line. Think of a four-part choral composition with S (soprano), A (alto), T (tenor), and B (bass). In a partsong, the soprano usually has the melodic line, but it is also possible for the tenor or the altos to sing the melodic line; however, only one melodic line is sung at a time. The term partsong is the antonym of Madrigal wherein there is a polyphonic (contrapuntal) treatment of the melody, which is repeated at regular intervals in each voice of the choir. Remember your days of youth, sitting around a campfire, and singing Row, Row, Row, Your Boat. That is a simple example of counterpoint – the melodic line is repeated at specific intervals.
Maestro Timothy Krueger and the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir began the performance with the well-known English folk song Greensleeves. This particular arrangement was done by W. H. Anderson (1882- 1955), an Englishman who settled in Canada, and arranged a vast amount of folksongs from many countries. This particular arrangement was, in some ways, traditional, but had moments of twentieth century harmonies and deceptive resolutions of the harmony. It was beautiful, and the performance of the choir was stunning because of its dynamic range which immediately caught my attention, as well as their precision in pitch and phrase entrances and exits. The performance of this opening folksong set the tone for the entire performance of the evening. The text of this arrangement was a love poem: the program did not say who wrote the poem, if indeed, it is known. You must understand that the folk music of Renaissance England, as separated from the art music of the time, was performed by balladeers, minstrels, and other musicians who simply performed the music but were not skilled enough to compose it. There were large amounts of ballad texts which were instantly written (and occasionally printed) with the only direction given that they should be sung to the melody of such folksongs as Greensleeves. There has been some discussion about the first written appearance of this folksong because it appears in Thysius Lute Book (c. 1595) and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book which contains music from 1562 to 1612. The only reason I bring this up is to demonstrate the popularity of this still-relevant piece of music, as the aforementioned Lute Book was a Dutch publication.
The choice of arrangement demonstrates the musicological skill of Dr. Timothy Krueger. Most of the music performed Friday evening has been collected by the twentieth century’s most valuable English musicians and collectors, among them: W. H. Anderson, Ralph Vaughn Williams, R. O. Morris, Gustav Holst, Peter Warlock, Granville Bantock, and Percy Grainger (Australian). Many of the folksongs that were performed Friday had several arrangers, but Krueger has the depth of knowledge to pick the best. He also possesses the musicianship to put together a choral organization in which, I am convinced, every member could be a soloist. I will also make the editorial comment that there should have been more young people in the audience. After all, the text of these folksongs concern topics that would be of interest to young people (love, the loss of love, lullabies, nature, etc.). And, unlike modern pop performances, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir has such remarkable diction, that every word could be understood, which seems to be an amazing concept in today’s pop music performances.
There is absolutely no question that the poignancy of Friday evening’s performance was created not only by the text of the songs, but by the artful interpretation by the choir. The folksong, The Turtle Dove, was the second work on the program, and the text concerns the statement of eternal love by a young man to his ‘bonny lass.’ This work was arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams, and it was exquisite. Each member of the choir seemed to be emotionally involved with the text as well as the music, and the performance was spellbinding. That kind of involvement by each member of the choir is what sets this organization apart from many others. One could ascribe this to ‘detail’ work, but that sounds so sterile after hearing the performance. For example, one of the works performed Friday evening was the Irish Tune From County Derry, which many of you readers will know under the name of Danny Boy. The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir sang this arrangement by Percy Grainger without any text whatsoever, and it was just as moving as the rest of the program which had text. It was quite a surprise to hear this popular melody sung without words because it certainly highlighted the beauty of the melody as well as the outstanding ability of the choir. Though many have long ascribed this folksong as a statement of eternal love between a man and a woman, most are now in agreement that it represents the statement of a father’s loss of his son in battle.
Yarmouth Fair, arranged by Peter Warlock, was a cheerful description of a celebration. Blow Away The Morning Dew was the accounting of a winsome young lady who makes her amorous boyfriend appear as a fool in front of her father.
Though the program had a subtitle of British Folksongs and Partsongs, it was divided between the English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish folksongs. One of the most beautiful of the evening was An Cronan Bais, which is Scots Gaelic (Erse is the form of Gaelic in Ireland, Cymric in Wales) for The Death Croon. Though it was arranged by Granville Bantock who died in 1946, many of the harmonies seemed more recent. I am quite sure that this is a very old folksong, undoubtedly from the pagan era of the Outer Hebrides. However, the text, as performed Friday evening, was decidedly from the Christian era. This is only given as a point of interest, but it helps to underscore the varied impact that this performance by the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir had on Friday evening’s audience.
Brett Kostrzewski, is the Conducting Intern for St. Martin’s, and I must say that in his conducting of some of the folksongs Friday evening, that he achieved the same results as Timothy Krueger. Miles Canaday, likewise, achieved the same results. Canaday is the conductor of the MSU Denver Women’s Chamber Choir, who will appear with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir on Saturday and Sunday’s performance.
Soloists at the Friday evening performance were Taylor Martin, tenor; Marjorie Bunday, contralto; and Leslie Remmert Soich, contralto. All three of these soloists have excellent vocal production which, in turn, allows them excellent diction. Every word could be understood, and their phrasing, as well as their musicality, was superb.
The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, under the direction of Maestro Timothy Krueger, is one of the most outstanding choral organizations, not only in Colorado, but in the United States. I always marvel at how their performances can be so stunning and consistently fine. I spent many hours, which were required of piano majors at my undergraduate school, accompanying in voice studios, and every member of this choir exemplifies what the voice professors were telling their students. I am continually amazed that there are so many fine vocalists in Denver. There was a decent audience Friday evening, but to my way of thinking, Holy Cross Lutheran Church should have been standing room only for this performance.
This article also appears at: http://www.thescen3.org/
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Ann Marie Liss, Barbara Hamilton, Basil Vendrys, Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, George Frederick Handel, Josef Haydn, Marjorie Bunday, Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, Ralph Valentine, Robert Avrett, St. Andrew's Choir, St. John 's Choir, Stephen Tappe, Timothy Krueger
Saturday evening, November 2, I attended a concert at St. John’s Cathedral at 14th Street and Washington in Denver. It featured some of the best musical organizations in Denver: the St. John’s Cathedral Choir, with Stephen Tappe, Choirmaster; St. Andrew’s Choir, Timothy Krueger, Choirmaster; Ann Marie Liss, harpist; and the region’s well-known Colorado Chamber Players, Barbara Hamilton, Executive Director, and violist. I emphasize that these are all stellar musicians.
The concert opened with a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) famous organ work, Vision of the Eternal Church (Apparition de l’église eternelle) which was written in 1932. It was performed by Ralph Valentine, who is the organist at St. Andrews in Denver. Valentine is a teacher and an organist, well known throughout the United States. He began his teaching career at Rosemary Hall School in Greenwich, Connecticut, and moved with the school to Wallingford, Connecticut, when it merged with The Choate School in 1971. At Choate Rosemary Hall he was Head of Music, Choral Director, School Organist, and Instructor in Theory, Harmony, Counterpoint, History, Composition, Organ, and Harpsichord for forty-two years. He has been very active as a recitalist, composer, and leader of workshops.
This was a riveting performance of a very intense piece of music, which certainly demonstrates Messiaen’s Roman Catholic inspiration in an almost mystical way. That statement, of course, seems almost contradictory, but this composition is full of rhythmic tension and harmonic tension, with open fourths and fifths. It is a very dense piece with thick textures, some of which recall the harmonies of medieval chant with its parallelisms, which were considered consonants. Its mood also makes one think of the huge cathedrals that are characteristic in many countries of Europe. It was a wonderful performance that clearly revealed Messiaen’s inspiration.
The next work on the program was Zadok the Priest, a coronation anthem which was written for George II of Great Britain in 1727. Written by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), I’m sure many in the audience recognized this work, because it has been sung for almost every coronation since it was written. The collaboration with the Colorado Chamber Players produced a small chamber orchestra which was a perfect size for this kind of performance. The choirs and the orchestra, which were thoroughly prepared for this performance, at once gave a demonstration in contrasts of the intricate and elegant style of Handel, while showing his skill at composition for huge ceremonies, with brazen outbursts from the trumpets. But it was in this work that a detriment in this program raised its ugly head: acoustics.
In most of the performances that I have attended at St. John’s Cathedral, the performers have been seated in the Crossing (that is the official name of the area) which is immediately in front of the Apse. The Apse is the U-shaped area at the front of the church that contains the Altar, and it is surrounded, at St. John’s Cathedral, by an area called the Ambulatory. The Ambulatory contains the organ keyboard and the seats for the choir which surround the Altar. The seating follows the U-shaped Ambulatory. Therefore, sections of the choir are facing each other. The Colorado Chamber Players was seated at the base of the U-shape, facing the congregation – or in this case, the audience. That meant that the sound of the choirs was echoing off opposite walls of the Apse, while being combined with the chamber orchestra. I’m not sure how many choir members there were at the performance, but there were fourteen members of the chamber orchestra. This may have been too large a group of musicians to put in the Crossing, but it is in the Crossing where the sound produced would not have ricocheted off the narrow walls of the Apse.
I point out that since the organ pipes are in the rear of the church above the Narthex, organ performances are not affected by the acoustics in the front of the church. In the performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, the acoustics made the sounds of these excellent musicians muffled and mushy. The diction of the choirs, and I remind you these are excellent choirs, could not be understood at all. Sometimes the orchestra overpowered the choirs, and sometimes the choirs overpowered the orchestra.
Next on the program, came Danses Sacrée et Profane, written by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy wrote this work as a commission from the Pleyel piano and harp manufacturer in Paris. They had just built a new chromatic harp, which was different from the conventional concert harp with its seven pedals and huge size. It also took a very long time to tune. The new harp had added strings for the chromatic half steps in the scale. As a matter of fact, it could vaguely be considered similar to Bach’s use of Pythagoras’ theories of ratio in tuning the harpsichord to equal temperament wherein, for example, the note ‘A’ can be played in the key of A major, F major, D major, etc., without having to tune the harpsichord between each key.
Debussy’s work became a very important contribution to harp literature, and I must say that it was a joy to hear, for even though it is quite popular for a small chamber orchestra and harp, it has been sometime since I have heard the piece performed live.
Dr. Ann Marie Liss performed on the harp Saturday evening. She has performed worldwide, and is on the faculty at Colorado College. She earned her doctorate at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She has won many international competitions, and is widely sought out as an instructor, coach, and clinician, specializing in technical foundation, tone production, and brain integration in musical performance. She is a founding member with Basil Vendrys, who is the principal violist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in Duo Esprit which appears frequently in concert.
The opening of this work by Debussy has always struck me as being very un-Debussy-like, because of its unison strings, but soon the harp enters and it plays typical thick textured Debussy chords. Dr. Liss was absolutely wonderful and her performance of this piece, and so was the Colorado Chamber Players. Their unison string playing against the rich harmonies provided by the harp was absolutely spectacular, and it was interesting to note the difference in sound between the harp and strings, when the strings played pizzicato. I, for one, have never been able to make much of a distinction between the sacred and the profane concept that Debussy must have had in mind. To me, this is simply another beautiful piece that Debussy wrote around the turn-of-the-century.
But, once again the strange acoustics left their mark in the way of attacks and releases which were not sharp and well-defined.
Following the Debussy, the Colorado Chamber Players performed a Haydn quartet that is rarely performed. It is the last of six quartets that comprise Haydn’s Opus 33, and it carries the Hoboken number Hob. III:42. Thus, its official name is String Quartet Op. 33, Nr. 6 in D major, Hob. III:42. Anthony van Hoboken was the musicologist who created the catalog of Haydn’s works. These six quartets were the first Haydn had written in ten years, and he wanted to earn more money by selling manuscript copies, even though these had been published by Artaria, I believe, in 1782. In order to sell them, Haydn proclaimed them to be “brand-new” (which, of course, they were), but some scholars have insisted that this meant that these quartets contained a new style, which is not the case. They are simply wonderful, absolutely delightful quartets that are rarely played.
The Colorado Chamber Players, in my opinion, have a special ability at performing Haydn. It is absolutely marvelous, and they convince me that the Haydn quartets should be played just as often as the Mozart quartets, which, unfortunately, they don’t seem to be. The musicians Saturday night were superb as always, and their spirit and approach to the interpretation of Haydn could not have been better. However, their hard work and enthusiasm for what they were doing was marred by the troublesome acoustics. Some of their sounds were so distorted, that they became almost “electronic” in nature, with a flat and whining buzz. The Apse of the church seemed not to be able to handle the different quality of sound between violin, viola, and cello, with the sounds ricocheting off the narrow enclosure.
Before intermission, the choirs sang a beautiful work, They are at rest, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), which he composed for the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death. It is a striking piece with rich harmonies and a genuinely contemplative mood. And that is precisely the way it was performed.
The major work on Saturday evening’s concert was the Requiem by French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902- 1986). Duruflé was an outstanding organist and composer who, like César Franck, was not very prolific. However, Duruflé, again like Franck, is known for a small number of truly fine compositions. The Requiem is probably his best known work. It seems to be a mix of harmonies coming from Fauré and Ravel, and yet blended with the modal harmonies of the Renaissance. It is interesting to note that in this mass for the dead, he omits the Dies Irae and the Tuba Mirum, which is exactly what Gabriel Fauré omitted from his Requiem, prompting the often acid tongued Camille Saint-Saëns to call Fauré’s Requiem “One of the finest nocturnes ever written.” (The Dies Irae carries the warning that one must “live piously,” or face the wrath of God upon one’s death. The Tuba Mirum announces that the Day of Judgment is at hand, and that there is no reprieve for those who have not lived piously. Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Gouvy, wrote some stunning music to fit these two sections of the requiem masses that they composed.)
Duruflé’s Requiem is an absolutely beautiful piece that deserves to be performed more often than it is. The performance clearly demonstrated the dedication and musicianship of those in the choir and orchestra, but also Timothy Krueger and Stephen Tappe, who prepared the choirs. The alto and baritone soloists, Marjorie Bunday and Robert Avrett, both of whom I have written about previously, were superb. And again, that brings me to a point about the acoustics. Both Bunday and Avrett stood just outside the arch of the Apse of the church, at the front edge of the Crossing. Therefore, their wonderful voices were un-muffled and clear. Every word they sang could be understood, because their consummate vocal production allows them to deal with the rigors of the dictation. However, the diction of these two choirs, which is normally excellent, could not be understood because of the sound bouncing around inside the Apse. Sometimes they drowned out the orchestra, and sometimes the orchestra drowned out the choir. Did the choirs have superb sound quality? Emphatically, yes. Were their dynamics excellent? Again, emphatically, yes. Everybody performing Saturday evening clearly has superb musicianship.
It speaks to that quality to say that the musicianship was apparent in spite of the acoustics. And, I am perfectly aware that fitting the chamber orchestra and the choirs in the Crossing of the church in front of the Apse, would have been difficult because of the number of musicians involved. But perhaps for performances such as this, the powers that be at St. John’s Cathedral could figure out a way to make the Crossing a little larger, perhaps by taking out the first row or two of pews just for a singular performance. I understand that would mean extra work and cost, but when such a marvelous program is presented, as it was Saturday evening, it would be worth it. Nonetheless, in spite of my criticism which some may regard as too heavy, it was a superb program. It gave everyone in the audience a chance to hear some compositions they might not hear for a long time.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Barbara Hamilton, Carole Whitney, Chris Maunu, Derek Chester, Elise Greenwood Bahr, Gloria Choi, Heejung Kim, James Kim, Kenrick Mervine, Laura Chester, Lisa Brende Martin, Margaret Miller, Margaret Soper Gutierrez, Marjorie Bunday, Nathan Payant, Steven Soph, Stuart Dameron, Susan Hochmiller, Tara U'Ren
Sunday afternoon I attended a concert of Bach cantatas presented by the Colorado Bach Ensemble supplemented by the Colorado Chamber Players, as their opening concert for their second season. As I said before, this is a new ensemble in Colorado, and they have given some world-class performances prior to this concert. Sunday’s performance was presented at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills. This was world-class also.
Lest you have forgotten, I will refresh your memory concerning Dr. James Kim, who is the founder of the Colorado Bach Ensemble, by quoting a bio statement from a program:
“James Kim is currently the Director of Choral Activities at Colorado State University. The choirs under his direction have appeared at numerous national and international conventions and festivals including the ACDA, NCCO, Aspen Music Festival, and Steamboat Springs Strings Festivals. Most recently, in 2011, CSU hosted the National Collegiate Choral Organization’s 4th biennial conference. CSU Chamber Choir was featured throughout the conference under the direction of Helmuth Rilling rehearsing and performing the two motets, Singet dem Herrn, Jesu meine Freude, and the Magnificat by Bach.
“James Kim spent 2 years in Stuttgart, Germany from 1997-1999 studying the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. After returning to the US, the passion and dedication to promote the music of J.S. Bach to American audience on a professional level have been the focus of his musical endeavors. He is committed and most excited to bring Bach’s music vividly to the audience in Colorado.”
Dr. Kim made it very clear Sunday afternoon that he does not just appreciate Bach, he knows and understands Bach. What could I possibly mean by such a statement? Doesn’t every conductor know Bach? The simple answer is “No.” For example, I own a recording of J. S. Bach’s magnificent cantata, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. It has world renowned performers, conductor, choir, and orchestra. It could be due to the fact that this is a digitally remastered recording which was originally done in 1962, but its proportions sound huge: huge choir, huge orchestra, etc. Though this recording was produced in Germany, it fits the American philosophy of “Bigger is better.” Often, there is usually nothing terribly wrong in that belief, but wouldn’t it be nice if the cliché was “Authentic is better?”
The simple truth is that Bach did not have at his disposal a huge orchestra and a huge choir. Keep in mind that his cantatas were written for church services, and not for concerts. Maestro James Kim is aware of that, and that is what gives him the advantage over other conductors: he has the stamina and courage to perform Bach as authentically as he knows how. And, he knows a great deal about Bach. In addition, he feels the artistic necessity to perform Bach accurately. After this concert was over, I had a very interesting conversation with the wife of one of the performers. She used the word “intimate,” and that is the very precise word to describe the Bach performances that are conducted by Maestro James Kim. I had the very distinct feeling at this concert that the three of Bach’s cantatas that were performed on Sunday, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, Vergnügte Ruh, BWV 170, and Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, were being performed just for me. It was that intimate.
The Colorado Bach Ensemble opened the program with one of Bach’s most well-known cantatas, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61. There were two cantatas written by Bach utilizing Martin Luther’s Advent hymn, “Come now, Savior of the heathen.” The present work, BWV 61, was written in 1714. The second, BWV 62, was written in 1724 and was given its first performance in Leipzig on December 3 of that year. (BWV is the abbreviation for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the thematic catalogue of Bach’s works organized by Wolfgang Schmieder (1909-1990).
Dr. Kim always surprises me with his completely relaxed posture on the podium, but it is also apparent that he is closely watching the musicians in front of him, and that he is in command of the situation. But even that statement, while true, seems overstated simply because he constantly gives the musicians their chance to prove that they know the composer being performed. I would truly like to attend one of his rehearsals, because I suspect there is quite a lengthy verbal explanation of his concept of the score and how it should be performed. He has infinite trust in their ability to remember what was said at all of the rehearsals, and I have never heard a performance where they have let him down. Such is the mutual exchange between everyone on stage. They are constantly listening to each other very carefully while watching Maestro Kim. The result is a graceful flow of the music, combined with the necessary rhythmic pulse generated by Bach’s counterpoint.
The vocal soloists in Sunday’s performance were Susan Hochmiller, soprano; Marjorie Bunday, contralto, Derek Chester and Stephen Soph, tenors; and Stuart Dameron, bass. In addition to the soloists, who also sang in the choir, the other members of the choir were Elise Greenwood Bahr and Laura Chester, sopranos; Gloria Choi and Tara U’Ren, contralto; Chris Maunu and Nathan Payant, basses.
Members of the orchestra were Margaret Soper Gutierrez and Heejung Kim, violin; Barbara Hamilton and Margaret Miller, viola; Carole Whitney, cello; Lisa Brende Martin, oboe d’amore; and Kenrick Mervine, keyboard.
I would like to make two points here: notice how small this group is. It does not take a huge choir and orchestra to have an absolutely sensational performance, as this one was. And, point two: Dr. Kim has surrounded himself with some of the best musicians in the state of Colorado, and all of them just happen to be some of the best musicians in the United States. For example, in the cantata BWV 61, Bach requires pizzicato in Section 4, as the bass soloist sings the voice of Christ, and states, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” The pizzicato was perfectly together dynamically and rhythmically. There was no raggedness.
Another point that I would like to make is a surprising one, but it underscores why the Colorado Bach Ensemble and the Colorado Chamber Players are so outstanding. All of the musicians, be they vocalists or instrumentalists, are so truly superior that it is impossible to say that Susan Hochmiller was better than Marjorie Bunday, or that Margaret Soper Gutierrez is better than Heejung Kim. All of you readers should take note that James Kim has surrounded himself with a group of outstanding musicians, and their combined excellence made it possible for this exceptional concert. I will also add that Kenrick Mervine and Carole Whitney were superb in their performance of the continuo. They did not just play through it mechanically: they made genuine music as a part of the ensemble.
In 1723, Bach began to compose cantatas at a surprising rate, because he had just been appointed the Cantor in Leipzig. The job required that he compose a cantata for every Sunday and every special feast day of the liturgical year. The next cantata that the Colorado Bach Ensemble performed, Vergnügte Ruh, BWV 170, is, I think, one of the outstanding cantatas of this period. The opening aria, “Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul,” is a wonderful cantilena which was beautfully sung by Marjorie Bunday. She, and Maestro Kim, simply let the music speak for itself in its gently swaying motion, and both seemed to be under the spell of Bach’s lyricism. The final aria was undeniably joyful and rhythmically driven.
The third cantata that was performed on Sunday was another of Bach’s most well-known: Christ lag in Todesbanden. This is an early cantata, perhaps written in 1707 or 1708. Bach certainly revised it after he arrived in Leipzig some years later. I would urge you readers to get a recording of this cantata because Bach’s method of composing it is quite obvious: it uses the Luther hymn as a cantus firmus. He also uses this composition method in a later cantata, the aforementioned Wachet auf, BWV 140. These two cantatas are really quite dissimilar except for that one compositional feature, but comparing these two cantatas can be a lesson in learning how to listen to these magnificent works. The vocal soloists in the performance of this cantata were outstanding and displayed remarkably similar musicianship. The chorus was amazingly expressive, but maintained their relaxed demeanor. And that really underscores what I mentioned above: equal musicianship amongst everyone on stage, and equal musical ability. The instrumentalists from the Colorado Chamber Players are always exhilarating to listen to and combined with the vocalists produced one of the best performances of the Bach cantatas that I have heard in at least fifty years. The performance was authentic, while, all the time exposing Bach’s incredible contrapuntal ability. Bach’s counterpoint evolves harmonically, but each voice takes on an incredible independence that becomes startling. Before Bach, Palestrina was the eminent composer of counterpoint, but it was Bach who brought it back to life and made it a modern compositional technique for his time. There were composers of the future, Beethoven, for one, who wrote fine counterpoint, but no one used it to the extent that Bach did, and he remains unmatched.
I am inclined to ask you readers how many times you have heard three cantatas performed live. It was a rare treat to hear these cantatas in a row so superbly performed by absolutely everyone on stage. It was stunning.