A pile of fresh CD reviews (and tight deadlines) for American Record Guide (the national review mag I write for) has kept me out of the blogging loop lately. But Friday before last’s “Mostly Baroque” event – part of the College’s top-notch Charleston Music Fest chamber series – still bears scrutiny.
The concert’s title struck me as a bit misleading, as only two of the four composers heard were of the Baroque era. But I’m certainly not complaining. In terms of great music, beautifully performed, the evening was mostly a smashing success.
The program began with the first of two installments (three numbers each) of opera arias by Baroque master GF Handel, very capably sung by rising Brazilian countertenor star José Lemos. He’s a C of C grad – and lately the most famous singer their School of the Arts has ever produced, having sung leading roles with distinguished opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic in recent seasons. A quartet of gifted string players, plus harpsichord, backed him up.
Despite lingering illness (a stubborn cold), Lemos still managed to deliver thrilling performances of all but one of six arias. In ‘Al Lampo dell’armi,’ – a lovely thing with tricky “call-and-response” passages between the singer and the first violin – the performers apparently lost their places in the music, and had to start over from the beginning. All went well the second time through, but everybody was a bit more cautious. Lemos chalked that one up to very limited rehearsal time and last-minute substitutions.
Mind you, Handel wrote these arias for Castrati: the emasculated “rock stars” of their day – and some of them have been well-nigh impossible for modern singers to master, until the rise of the countertenor in recent decades. They’re often full of speedy runs, tricky embellishments and bouncy vocal acrobatics – plus supremely lyrical, drawn-out phrases that require phenomenal breath control. Lemos made child’s play of these myriad technical difficulties, while projecting his hallmark emotional intensity. But his pesky cold took some of the usual plummy bloom out of his vocal tone, especially in his lower range.
Sandwiched between the two vocal sets were the evening’s more modern works. First we got David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody, a smashing showpiece for cello and piano that transcribes several of Franz Liszt’s own Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano. Our performers were series co-hostess Natalia Khoma, with Volodymyr Vynnytsky – her musical partner of long standing – at the Steinway.
This is a paragon of over-the-top passion and virtuosity that alternates aching Gypsy strains with headlong fast passages. Our players nailed it – trading searing feeling with breakneck tempos to jaw-dropping effect. And I was even more flabbergasted when Khoma told me afterwards that Vynnytsky insisted on playing the final staccato passages in Liszt’s original OCTAVES (instead of Popper’s single-note reductions)!
Enter our other co-hostess: violinist Lee-Chin Siow – along with the College’s Artist-in-Residence, pianist Enrique Graf – for an inspired and touching performance of pioneering American black composer William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano.
Still’s great gift was his ability to effectively express the African-American musical idiom in classical form. And I was amazed at how beautifully a violinist from Singapore and a pianist from Uruguay captured his inimitably American spirit. The bluesy, but busy opening passage was vaguely dance-like – and the laid-back slow movement reflected its alleged inspiration (a mother singing to her child) with devastating tenderness. The high-spirited, jazzy final movement left me with a big smile on my face.
After halftime came the concert’s juicy grand finale: a full performance of JS Bach’s immortal Brandenburg Concerto No. 5: written for violin, flute, harpsichord and string orchestra. Lee Chin returned on violin, along with Jill Muti and her fluent flute. The harpsichord part – featuring a ferociously difficult and flashy cadenza – was rendered by Vynnytsky, at the piano. And why not? It’s been done before; besides, all of the other instruments were modern ones, too.
The presence of Siow and Khoma on the SOTA faculty has now attracted enough gifted students to form a pretty darned good strings ensemble – which made its concert debut here as the “Charleston Camerata.” Khoma took the precaution of conducting them, from behind the soloists.
And they all sounded fine together. Siow and Muti delivered Bach’s happy violin-flute dialogue with skill and mutual sympathy – and Vynnytsky was again brilliant at the piano. His instrument has a rather heavy tone (especially in its middle range), so his left foot spent lots of time on the “una corda” (soft) pedal to keep from drowning out the lighter soloists. Despite the generally good balance, Muti’s dulcet flute was nearly overcome in a few of the noisier passages. Our brand-new Camerata sounded smooth and confident.
Thus were upheld the uncommonly high standards of our yearly Music Fest: the finest chamber music this side of Spoleto. Don’t miss the series’ final event – “Concert and High Tea at Ashley Hall” – on March 29. I’ll tell you more about it as its time draws nigh.