Music, the Language of Love - February 9, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Sacramento’s First Methodist Church was almost full when Conductor Peter Nowlen spoke to the audience for the first time. He was a relaxed host throughout, emphasized by the fact that he appeared in shirt sleeves, until he donned a jacket when joining the singers for the final selection of the concert. His remarks began on a serious note, though, when he announced that the concert would be dedicated to Dr. James Clayton Almond, a long-term, recently deceased member of Camerata California. Then Nowlen gave some background on the Vaughn Williams compositions that constituted the first half of the concert program.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
“Serenade to Music” was the first piece, and as the printed program notes, it was composed, not for a chorus, but for “16 vocal soloists” and orchestra. Coincidentally, Camerata consists of 17 singers, but for this performance, only 9 were called on to perform the solos. Indeed, Camerata California does seem to be a chorus of soloists. There is a lengthy biography of each singer in the program, emphasizing their musical experience, and many have had impressive singing careers. And they strike a dignified pose, each performing from behind a music stand.
After a lyrical, romantic orchestral introduction to “Serenade to Music,” the piece was carried by the soloists, with very little ensemble singing. Highlighting the performance was some lovely harp playing and soulful strings. But it was not all sweetness and light. The text was drawn from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and included the line “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” This epitomized what was for me a darkness in the piece – call it bittersweet or sadly sweet. And yet overall, I found it all very satisfying. Personally, I have always enjoyed Vaughan Williams’ music, though I have not explored it very deeply. Both of his compositions in the first half of this program were new to me, and they left me wishing I had made a more serious study of his work.
“Five Mystical Songs” presented a very different experience. Seventeenth century poet, George Herbert, was the source of the text, and his poems were mystical in the religious sense of the word. The concert was titled, “Music, the Language of Love,” but this piece was not the Valentine’s Day type of love, but a disquisition on the love of Christ.
For the first four of the five songs, it felt like a solo performance with occasional choral back-up. And the solo work was outstanding. Sean Bianco delivered a strong, confident baritone with excellent articulation, especially important because the text was so profound. And it seemed to me that Bianco was truly engaged in the message he was conveying. From behind the stand that held his music, he often raised his hands and arms expressively. I’ve known voice teachers who disapprove of the practice, but to me it bespoke honest emotion that enhanced the power of the music.
The chorus made its presence felt in the fifth song with triumphant, powerful ensemble singing. As the applause rose, I found myself thinking that these might be among my favorite Vaughn Williams compositions, evidence that chorus and soloists had done justice to the genius of the composer.
After the intermission, there was a very different concert experience: a performance of two short pieces by the Davis Children’s Chorale. Overall, I thought that the 17 young singers did quite well. The first piece, “Cooroo, Cooroo,” was a pretty song, and I perceived a nice tone and good blending by the children, each of whom was intensely engaged in their singing. The second selection, “Snowflakes,” was also nice, and they held up well in an a cappella section, though I perceived a sag in intonation toward the end.
The finale of the concert was the West Coast premier (and only second performance) of “In the Arms of Music,” by Matthew Harris. It was made particularly special in that it was directed by the composer himself. The piece was scored for orchestra, soloists, adult chorus, children’s chorus, and boy soprano, and its five sections were poetry about music that ranged over 400 years of history.
Compared to much of the contemporary serious music I’ve heard, I found this piece very accessible, extraordinarily diverse, and full of fresh, interesting musical ideas. I was particularly aware of the skill in matching music to very disparate texts that ranged from brooding drama, to elegant beauty, to humor, and to, well, quirkiness. Throughout, I had the distinct feeling that the music was supporting and enhancing the lyrics, rather than overwhelming them.
One of my favorite sections was “To Music, To Becalm His Fever” (poem by Robert Herrick) in which soprano Ava DeLara was accompanied only by the children’s choir. It was a beautiful combination that made for very pleasant listening, and I was especially impressed by DeLara’s performance. I have heard so many sopranos lose 50% of their tone when working in the lower part of their range. Not so with DeLara, whose low range was clear and strong, matching the beauty and power of her upper register.
Then there was “Earth Song” by Deborah Mitchell. Beginning with timpani and sounds that I’ve never before heard from a string section, the choral part was entirely spoken – except for the last note. It was a tour de force of fascinating cacophony. One more highlight of “In the Arms of Music” was an incidental solo by boy soprano, Daniel Ostrom, who gave a performance of exceptional purity. Overall, I found Harris’ piece full of interesting melodies to follow and harmonies to enjoy. It was new music that I wouldn’t hesitate to bring family and friends to hear, and my enjoyment was clearly shared by the many audience members who rose to their feet in applause as the concert came to a close.