IN REVIEW: A violinist, a chorus, a symphony and the “Goldbergs” offer delights

Harriman-Jewell presents up-and-coming violin and piano luminaries on Discovery series

Elena Urioste

Elena Urioste

Elena Urioste and Gabriela Martinez effect a fine collaboration, playing with a unified and intuitive feel for each other’s musical outlook and direction. At the duo’s violin-piano recital on June 7th, part of the Harriman-Jewell’s Discovery Series, one was aware at times that the sharp sophistication of Elena’s violin artistry was not always matched by Gabriela’s somewhat less compelling pianism. Nevertheless the program, the finale of the Harriman season, was filled with rewarding musical moments, especially in Debussy’s elusive and always fascinating late Sonata in G major. Dressed in striking gowns – Elena in jade green, Gabriela in a sort of pale avocado – the youthful couple provided a nearly brimful Folly Theater audience with fine renditions of works from a wide range of contrasting aesthetics.

From the beginning of Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata – an apt choice for an evening of cheering spring weather – one was immediately aware of Elena’s lush and deeply-felt sonority, expressed through long-breathed lines that bespoke careful consideration of pace and phrasing. The piano matched some of this suavity but could at times grow a tad dry, as in the overly detached repeated chords of the 2nd theme. A sort of initial shyness at the beginning of the Adagio molto espressivo quickly gave way to sweet lyricism from Elena. The duo found a properly airy spirit for the Scherzo, and the finale was inspired despite some sforzandi that sometimes lacked direction (though indeed marked in the score).

Both participants felt more in their element in the Debussy Sonata, the composer’s last work before he succumbed to colon cancer. One hears little of the composer’s great physical suffering in this ethereal, magical piece, from the mysterious opening piano chords to the violin’s tender elán. The first movement was an elusive gem in this duo’s hands, while the Intermède was a playful, will-o’-the-wisp fantasy (into which a few ensemble issues did creep in). Debussy’s elusive vein was back for the finale, tuning issues notwithstanding. Here the piano at times overpowered, partly perhaps because Elena could have done well to push her sound a bit forward. On the whole, though, a satisfying rendering.

Janáček’s Sonata from 1914 was generally well served, from the turbulent and bizarrely restless opening to the folk-like ballad of the second movement, with its ta-dum descent that reminded one of the composer’s Czech roots. The pianist was not always fully confident in the raucous Allegretto, but both artists rallied for the Shostakovich-like Adagio, whose well-gauged rhapsodic piano passages (with their heavy lament) were smartly juxtaposed with the violin’s nervous, agitated interjections.

The program’s final set consisted of short pieces intended to emulate, in Elena’s summation, the intimate “salon concerts” like those put on by Fritz Kreisler and others a century ago. (Oddly, none of Kreisler’s music was included.) Carl Engel’s “Sea Shell,” somewhat in the Debussy vein, included a lovely passage of beautifully executed harmonics. The “Hebrew Melody” by Joseph Achron plumbed more melancholy depths, and included rapid violin passagework that was alarmingly out of tune. Maria Theresia von Paradis’ gentle “Sicilienne,” thankfully played at a fairly brisk tempo, was followed by an overwrought arrangement of Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Debussy had the last word, in the form of a simple and elegantly rendered Heifetz arrangement of the chanson “Beau Soir.”

 

Simon Carrington Chamber Singers presents fifth season, again works with high school choirs

One of the highlights of the 2012-2013 season occurred very nearly toward the end, well after we’d fired up our lawnmowers and barbecue grills for the summer. The annual performances by the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers – a “pickup” group of gifted singers and choral directors from around the country who have studied with Simon at KU or elsewhere – were well worth the wait. What a sound! With good reason Simon has inspired a near cult-like following: This founding member of the legendary King’s Singers knows choral music about as well as anyone alive. And having coached choirs at KU, Yale and in a host of professional and collegiate settings worldwide, he has a magical touch indeed. For this fifth season of the 24-voice SCCS he has gathered a choir of exceptional quality.

Simon Carrington

Simon Carrington

The program was called “Soul Mates” and at the June 14th performance at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral the choir elicited, under Simon’s direction, some of the most beautiful choral sounds I have heard in recent years. (The performance was repeated at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Lawrence on the following day.) In the opening of Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis, which was taken at a good clip, the sopranos sang with suave, rounded clarity, the altos and tenors were a seamless part of the whole and the basses were neither too boomy nor too peaked. Text-painting (“Cymbala,” “canat” or singing), was emphatic but blended seamlessly into the whole. The concept of the program was clear: Works from various periods and styles were juxtaposed in pairs, sung successively without pause, to reveal subtle connections. Thus Byrd’s Ave verum corpus was linked with Steven Stucky’s breathtaking Whispers (after William Byrd), with its ingeniously interconnected texts from Whitman (“Ripples of unseen rivers – tides of a current”) and from Latin liturgy (“as the water and the blood flowed”). Again the tempos were refreshing but not overly brisk, with only the gentlest of lingering on crucial words or lines.

In the pairing of Gibbons’ Almighty and everlasting God and Stucky’s Drop, drop, slow tears (after Orlando Gibbons), the dazzling blend of the former was matched by the unearthly elegance of the latter with its softly jarring sibilants on the word “sin.” Purcell’s Thou knowest, Lord was paired with the contemporary composer Dominick DiOrio’s Ode to Purcell: the former a restful entreaty (“suffer us not”), the latter an interweaving of Purcellian sensibilities with more contemporary textures. (The outburst by the fine soloists at the end struck me as an over-reaction to the albeit potent text.)

In Hubert Parry’s There is an old belief, a sort of wartime creed from 1916, the chorus demonstrated an ebb and flow from pianissimo to forte and fortissimo that was extraordinarily effortless-sounding (despite our knowledge of how much effort is required to make something sound “effortless”). The setting of O magnum mysterium by young Daniel Elder – winner of the SCCS’s annual Composers Competition this year – took an instrumental approach to choral sound. “The textures and patterns relate to those found in orchestral timbres,” writes the composer, “with each word and idea representing a musical journey through mystical and fantastic areas of listening.” The result was an intriguing exploration of variegated sonorities, which in the end seemed to make a bit much of a simple, straightforward text. Zachary Wadsworth’s War-Dreams cleverly blended Whitman’s wrenching war texts (with harsh tone-clusters on words such as “carnage” and “callous”) and Byrd’s harrowing Bow thine ear, O Lord (“Sion is wasted and brought low, Jerusalem desolate and void”).

The SCCS rehearse with Simon for just a few days before putting together their June program each year, which they also record for professional release. But another vital aspect of Simon’s annual visit is his work with area high school choirs, which he says he has long admired for their unusually high quality. In the two numbers these 36 young singers performed one could hear quite clearly the signature “Carrington touch” – clarity, control, even a dab of wit, but all in the service of substantial, dead-serious music-making. They presented Britten’s Evening Primrose with simplicity and grace, and they even managed to sing a piece by KC’s Chen Yi (Mo Li Hua) in Chinese of all things. Who does that? It was impressive. More impressive still was the combined sound of the SCCS singers and the youth choir for Paul Mealor’s concise, disciplined setting of A Spotless Rose – where one heard a fresh, radiant vitality sort of elbowing its way through the surface of the adult singers’ professional polish.

The final pairing placed Judith Bingham’s intricate, polyglot Distant Thunder against Parry’s My soul, there is a country, the former featuring luminous final solos by sopranos Amy Waldron and Rebecca Duren, latter imbued with smart phrasing and satisfying sense of no-nonsense vigor. The single encore was an arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy,” a throwback to Carrington’s early days with the King’s Singers (which often perform pop arrangements). It included delicious solos by soprano Kayleigh Aytes and tenor Jonathan Thomas, and though nicely sung it is definitely not my cup of tea – a heavy-handed arrangement that seems to defy the simplicity of Paul Simon’s aesthetic.

 

The Goldberg Variations is the Owen/Cox Dance Group’s latest daring venture

For all its thorny monumentality, Bach’s Goldberg Variations has been choreographed dozens of times through the years, by such major figures as Jerome Robbins and, more recently, by adventurous folks such as James Kudelka, Mark Haim, John Clifford and Jurij Konjar. (Haim called it a “sort of Mount Everest of dance.”) Jennifer Owen and her husband, Brad Cox, formed the Owen/Cox Dance Group after Jen’s departure from the Kansas City Ballet, and their company has made quite a mark in the city’s artistic landscape – partly for its zany and now-annual The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. But holiday traditions aside, Jen has spent the last couple of years creating what is surely the largest work of her choreographic career. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is such an iconic pinnacle of Western music that any adaptation of it into another art form must acknowledge the awe-inspiring near-perfection of the original. The composer’s approach to variation is so intricate and specific that any choreographic attempt to replicate its mathematical techniques would be fruitless. So Jen let her imagination run wild, and the result, performed on June 8th at White Hall, is an inspired and at times whimsical piece that reveals roots in classical ballet, modern dance, contemporary styles including jazz (with hints of Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Fred Astaire, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and the whole Broadway gang), and some of the more light-hearted aspects, perhaps, of Mark Morris or Seán Curran. If the result felt somewhat diffuse on a first viewing, it demonstrated great maturity, patience and surety of purpose.

Kairy Koshoeva

Pianist Kairy Koshoeva

Jen didn’t make it easy on herself. While Haim made his 1997 ballet into series of solos – initially for himself and later for five dancers “taking turns” – Jen has created a highly varied series of duets, trios, quartets and larger ensembles. Her approach to variation is not to create a handful of movements and use them 30 times: Instead, a casual repertoire of phrases evolves through the course of the 80-minute piece – performed live and capably onstage by pianist Kairy Koshoeva – as they form an interplay that becomes increasingly complex, even “busy.” The theme or Aria opens the piece with four dancers in a square huddle, from which they peel off successively and form a diffuse and complex set of formations.

Variation 1 demonstrates a strong feel for translating musical phrases into dance, in a loose-limbed but logical duet for Jen and Christen Edwards that introduces the humor we’ll continue to see throughout the ballet. The eight women and four men, many of whom are current or former KC Ballet members, unfold a dazzling series of mini-dramas: Logan Pachciarz d tries to woo three women (Variation 5), Catherine Russell and Molly Wagner circle each other, warily, in canon to one of Bach’s Canons (Variation 6), Sarah Chun and Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye do a laid-back series of classical ballet steps (No. 7), four men (Ryan, Logan, Michael Davis, Geoffrey Kropp) march regally around the stage and show off their turns and leaps, preening and strutting (No. 10), Juliana Bicki and Catherine Russell observe each other and create near-mirror images of oneanother, but with variations each time (No. 11), two couples attempt something similar (No. 12), and on it goes. There are flirtations, struggles, and Tharp-esque tangles. Some variations are downright clownish (No. 16), with a joyous, almost commedia-del-arte wackiness. The 21st Variation was refreshing for its simplicity, with four dancers in a stately, “courtship.” At times the density grew wearing (as in the long, slow 25th variation), and the collusion of styles threatened to undermined a clear sense of individual choreographic style. In the 30th Variation (“Quodlibet”), the dancers slowed to a stride as the music slowed, preparing us for the close. A repeat of the Aria featured the same four dancers peeling off the square, with bird-like arms as before.

This Goldberg is a remarkable achievement and will probably continue to have a life of its own. In addition to Kairy one must also mention rehearsal director Christine Colby Jacques, lighting designer Rachael Shair and costume designer Lily Walker. The piece will most likely evolve with time and repeated performances, and with influxes of new dancers. One hopes that instead of growing more complex and detailed, as often happens, it might grow into something simpler and more emphatic, perhaps with more focused, pensive dancing that allows the viewer more time for reflection.

 

Gil Shaham and the KC Symphony present welcome, rare performances of the Berg Concerto

Violinist Gil Shaham has devoted several of the last few years to performing and recording violin concertos from the 1930s – an especially rich decade that produced masterpieces by Barber, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Walton and a host of others. For his performances with the Kansas City Symphony, which I attended on May 31st, he and music director Michael Stern chose one of the most daring of all of these, the concerto by Alban Berg, whose sonic beauties sparkle so brightly that you hardly notice how “modern” the music sounds – and indeed still does, after all these years, though in a good way.

Gil Shaham

Gil produces some of the most gorgeous sounds on the violin of anyone alive. At the opening of the Berg he knew just when to play with wan restraint, and just when to inject more vibrato. His rhythmic sense was rock-steady, and during animated passages he leaned closer to Michael for accuracy. And who does “high tragedy” better than he? In the somber passages of the second movement he always seemed to strike the right mood, emotionally and conceptually. Rapid passages that we know are fiendishly difficult sounded, in his hands, lyrical rather than showy. By the end his glorious tone and rhetorical mastery had drawn us into his mournful state, in tandem with the doleful orchestral colors.

Some lovely playing was to be heard from the Symphony, as well, as Stern led them skillfully through Berg’s transparent textures with a sure hand and an intuitive sense for – and long familiarity with – Gil’s artistry. Yet for all the attempts to make the piece sound like chamber music, at times the players seemed a bit removed from the proceedings. This is a difficult piece to negotiate, and it would probably not be a stretch to say that some of the younger players were performing the work for the first time. As an encore Gil offered a lovely rendering of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, which he played with elegance, maturity and a big bold sound that filled Helzberg Hall to the rafters.

The program had opened with Angels by the American composer Carl Ruggles, which may have felt connected thematically with the Berg Concerto (which the composer had inscribed as being “in memory of an angel” in homage to a young friend who had just died) but musically it seemed vaguely incongruous. Scored for four trumpets and three trombones, the four-minute piece was performed in near-darkness, with lights only on Stern and the brass. It is a simple, direct piece, sweet and lively and “almost tonal,” with a touch of melancholy – perhaps a lonely hymn sung by some fallen angel?

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the “Great,” capped the program. It got off to a fuzzy start with the horns’ opening theme, but charged forward when the main theme started up – which was played a bit more briskly than we’re used to hearing it. I’m quite sure the winds are fully capable of playing their rapid-fire triplets together, though on this particular night they did not, quite. In the Andante con moto the oboe and clarinet solos sounded downright seductive, while the horns still sounded unkempt. The Scherzo was performed at a good clip, with the brass again seeming somewhat disconnected from the proceedings. (Would it help if they sat closer to the rest of the orchestra?) The finale felt it need more variety of attack, color and shaping, but the ending was big and exciting, and elicited grand applause.

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To reach Paul Horsley, the Indy’s performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net, contact him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501), or follow him on Twitter (@phorsleycritic).