Friday, April 24, 2009

Springtime chamber music...and ducklings

Spring is truly here and the weekend weather will be wonderfully sunny and warm. Our Spring Bach Festival continues on Sunday (April 23) at 3 PM, when three outstanding instrumentalists -- Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord) and Jonathan Manson (cello) -- perform Bach Flute Sonatas; their EMI recording of these works was released back in October. Each musician takes a solo turn as well, so we'll also have the pleasure of hearing Bach's First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, Telemann's flute Fantaisie in D major, and a Purcell Suite in A minor for Harpsichord. (It's been long time since we've heard solo harpsichord in recital at Spivey Hall. ) I love the program's mix of works. This promises to be an utterly delightful performance.

Mr. Pahud, an EMI recording artist and principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic, has performed at Spivey Hall to critical and popular acclaim in past seasons. We gladly welcome him back. Mr. Pinnock -- a leading figure in historically-informed performance, as well as founder and long-time conductor of The English Concert, with which he made many superb recordings -- makes his Spivey Hall debut, as does Mr. Manson, who is principal cellist of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and active in other early-music circles and ensembles. Clayton State University Music Department faculty member Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller gives the pre-concert talk at 2 PM, which never fails to give patrons effective ways of enhancing their appreciation and understanding of the music to be performed.

I do believe this Bach Festival program will suit the mood of our springtime Sunday afternoon very well. As much as I love Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which the Atlanta Symphony is performing with Donald Runnicles this week, I confess that I'm just not ready to contend with its anguish, darkness and angst when the weather's this fine and my mood is up.

Weather was an issue for the Atlanta Chamber Players earlier this season -- their March 1st Spivey Hall concert got SNOWED out...! Thankfully, schedules in April somehow meshed, so the rescheduled performance takes place tomorrow (as I write), Saturday, April 25, at 8:15 PM. Theirs is a program of three beautiful works. Beethoven's Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Viola features ASO principal flute Christina Smith, with her ASO colleagues violinist Justin Bruns and violist Catherine Lynn; more woodwinds in the spotlight, with Poulenc's delightful and very effective Trio for Piano, Oboe, and Bassoon, in which ACP artistic director and pianist Paula Peace is joined by ASO principal oboe Elizabeth Koch and principal bassoon Carl Nitchie. After intermission, and with the participation of ASO players John Meisner (violin) and Brad Ritchie (cello), the program concludes with the Piano Quintet in E major, Op. 15, of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, known for his fabulous film scores from the golden days of Hollywood, but also the opera "Die tote Stadt." His musical language is richly Romantic, his textures embrace the voluptuous, and his melodies can be very shapely indeed. I've only ever heard the Korngold Piano Quintet on CD, so I'm looking forward to hearing it performed live.

Another sign of spring: the waterfowl around Spivey Hall who call Swan Lake home have been nesting, and ducklings are in evidence! I know I'm something of a broken record on this topic (and I guess that phaseology dates me a bit), but the ducklings are my favorites. They always make me smile. One of the swans on the lake has been especially aggressive in chasing away the Canada geese from a specific area, so it's likely they're expecting, too. Cygnets always draw special ooohs and aaahs from Spivey Hall patrons, who enjoy strolling lakeside before performances and during intermission, particularly on bright afternoons. So perhaps a ballet of the newly-hatched chicks (pace Mussorgsky and Pictures at an Exhibition) may also entertain us on Sunday.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Welcoming back Chanticleer

Some of Spivey Hall's happiest days are when Chanticleer sings here. The twelve talented men of Chanticleer are tremendous audience favorites everywhere they perform -- based in San Francisco, they travel the world -- but they are especially welcome at Spivey Hall, where they sing frequently, to our great delight.

Chanticleer's a cappella artistry is ideally suited to the intimate size and acoustical wonders of Spivey Hall -- we can see the singers easily, we can hear them beautifully. Our connection to their music-making is complete, and thus immensely satisfying. In this magnificent setting, we can appreciate every nuance of what they sing, be it a 17th-century sacred Mexican work, a favorite American shape-note song, a new work written especially for Chanticleer, or a rousing spiritual.

Such a variety of music as this awaits us this Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18.

Friday's program is "Wondrous Free," which traces interlacing traditions of American song. The title is taken from the first line of what may be the earliest surviving American secular composition, "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" -- with words by Doctor Parnell, and music by a friend of George Washington and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Hopkinson. Craig Russell writes poetically in his introduction to this program:

American song reflects its geography and its histories; it is not a singular path nor a story of a single people, but instead is a flowing, ever-evolving stream of peoples and stories that weave together much like the tributaries of the Mississippi. And like that river, it is broad, awe-inspiring, and always changing in its course. American song, too, is like the American landscape: it can be rugged like the Rockies, contemplative and reverent like the swatch of colors painted across the Blue Ridge, kinetically rhythmic like the trains on their rails as they run into Chicago, or serenely introspective like the waves that wash ashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Like Montana's "big sky," American song has a breadth of horizon that seems to have no limiting boundary.

The program is in eight sections, spanning a group of early American songs; Mexican works of the 1600s; two humorous madrigals by P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742)?, "edited with feeling by Professor Schickele," namely, "The Queen to Me a Royal Pain Doth Give" and "My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth," guaranteed to lighten the mood of the evening, incite some smirking and laughter, and linger in your memory (whether you want them to or not!); and the three gorgeous songs of the young Samuel Barber's Reincarnations, inspired by Irish poetry.

Plus there's a work by the celebrated Native American composer Brent Michael Davids (b.1959), Night Chant, a prelude to love-making set to a movingly simple and direct text in Mohican words and Native American "vocables," the evocative translation of which I can't help but transcribe:

I have something I want to say to you.
It's night. Let's sleep together.
We're beautiful. We're beautiful.
It's right. It's right. It's right. It's right.
My heart is at peace.
My heart is at peace.

The program continues with two other contemporary American works: The Homecoming (In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr.) by David Conte to text by John Stirling Walker (composed for Chanticleer) and "Sleep, My Child" from Eric Whitacre's musical/opera Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings (specially transcribed for Chanticleer). Following a set of Stephen Foster songs (which no program surveying American song could be without), Chanticleer will close the program with a selection of folk songs, popular songs and spirituals to be announced.

And that's just the FIRST program. On Saturday, we have "Divine Tapestry," which includes the early American and Mexican works that open Friday's program, but then explores connections between plainsong (Gregorian chant) and historically important composers Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521), going on to embrace three very different Russian, English and German sacred works by Pavel Chesnoskov, John Tavener, and Franz Biebel, and concluding with three American spirituals -- "Rock a My Soul," "Deep River," and "Hold On!" -- sung as only Chanticleer can sing them, the first and last in arrangements by Chanticleer's esteemed artistic advisor (and Georgia native), Joseph Jennings.

This extraordinary program is performed without intermission, which I believe is done to heighten the intensity of the musical experience in store for us. Spivey Hall dedicates this program to the memory of Dorothy ("Dotty") Davis -- like her husband, Wilkes (now living in Florida), a passionate fan of Chanticleer, an ardent Spivey Hall subscriber, and a Charter Member of The Friends of Spivey Hall. Dotty, herself a singer, who passed away in October 2007, truly cherished Chanticleer. We'll be thinking of her this Saturday night, and I'm sure she'll be with us in spirit.

As if you couldn't tell, I'm also an enthusiastic member of the Chanticleer fan club. What an incredible range of musicianship these two programs require. What fascinating juxtapositions of works they contain. And what phenomenal stylistic versatility Chanticleer commands! These singers are simply amazing.

When first I received the two programs' repertoire details, I got very excited. Perhaps too excited...because in response to earlier versions of our promotion of these concerts, I received some feedback indicating we might be dwelling too heavily on the historical and musicological aspects of the programs -- to put it bluntly, "too much information" -- which may have been a bit hard for people to digest.

That was hardly my objective! Don't get me wrong, and don't let the details distract you. The main attraction is -- and always is -- CHANTICLEER! And Chanticleer delivers the musical goods in deeply gratifying ways! Still, I'm sure I'm not alone among music-lovers who hunger for interesting repertoire, so carefully chosen and prepared, that feeds our imaginations and sense of discovery, with fantastic programs like these.

What Chanticleer brings us is unique. Their visits to Spivey Hall are memorable because their musicianship is great, they sing with plenty of heart, WHAT they sing is so interesting, and the feeling they create in the hall with the audience is so palpable, so strong, and so rewarding. It's a feeling that reminds me of a patron's comment after he heard the Academy of Ancient Music perform the six Brandenburg Concertos with such success a few weeks ago: "THIS is what Spivey Hall is all about." Amen!

I'm personally grateful that Chanticleer is including in this visit to Atlanta a session with three high school men's choruses. On Friday, they're going to Starr's Mill High School in Fayetteville to lead a master class. The ensembles performing are Sandy Creek High School (Millie Turek, director); McIntosh High School (Amy Foster, director); Starr’s Mill High School (John Odom, director).

Chanticleer makes a practice of reaching out to young musicians to enhance their understanding of the art of a cappella singing. This is how important musical traditions are carried forward. Much great music-making unquestionably starts with the notes and the score, but goes far beyond it in ways that aren't always written down -- instead, the insights of great artists are passed from one generation to the next through performance, by teaching one-on-one, and by conveying ideas that can best be understood through sound, as musicians give them to each other. We're hoping that the young singers will be as enthralled by Chanticleer as audiences are, and that their time together will reap valuable musical benefits for everyone.

Friday's concert is getting close to selling out (UPDATE on Friday afternoon: only a very few tickets remain!). Saturday's is not far behind, but there are a still few more seats available for Saturday.

Don't hesitate! Chanticleer can recharge your musical batteries and give you a sense of well-being like few ensembles can. Come listen, and be inspired.

(A note to my friend and blog reader, Greg: I hope this font size makes for easier reading. Sometime this summer, I'm going to find a way to change the blue background of my blog, to enhance the general legibility of my posts.)