Contemporary Music Review Print

Giannini's Legacy Celebrated With Panache: A Feast of NCSA Composers

November 11, 2003 - Winston-Salem, NC:

A friend commented that it was almost too much to digest in one sitting. She was referring to the North Carolina School of the Arts' lavish celebration of the legacy of its vibrant first Chancellor, composer Vittorio Giannini (1903-66). A packed house filled Watson Chamber Music Hall for the November 11 concert. The stage became a musical cornucopia with a diverse series of instrumental combinations and a broad range of styles by composers directly connected with the NCSA.

Three works by Vittorio Giannini were scattered throughout the program. Least "digestible" was Psalm 130, for double bass and piano. Lynn Peters brought a basso profundo quality to the bass while Robert Rocco played the stormy piano part with plenty of passion. This was the only time during the evening in which the piano lid was at the lowest position. The composer ought to have reconsidered the dynamic markings for the whole score because the two parts were like an oil and vinegar dressing that refused to blend. Too often we could imagine either part being better standing alone. A post-performance reading of the text, "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord," failed to change our view. In contrast, the song "Tell me, Oh blue, blue Sky!" was immediately winning. Dedicated to Giannini's sister's voice teacher, the formidable Marcella Sembrich, the deceptively pastoral title belies the scoring for a dramatic soprano. Marilyn Taylor had all the high notes fully in place as well as firm support across her ample range. Her interpretation led trumpeter Mark Niehaus to modify his interpretation of Giannini's Trumpet Concerto. He said that he admired that "1940's thing" she did with that song. He brought sensitive phrasing and considerable virtuosity to the lovely concerto. Both artists were beautifully accompanied by pianist Allison Gagon, whose own keyboard parts were significant.

Unfortunately Giannini's successor as chancellor, Robert Ward, was unable to be present. Marilyn Taylor made the best possible case for one of his most winning works, "Sacred Songs for Pantheists." In addition to superb diction, she brought the same qualities already praised to these five delightful settings, which deserve frequent performances.

Half of the Mendelssohn String Quartet - violist Ulrich Eichenauer and cellist Marcy Rosen - were joined by visiting violinists Joseph Genualdi and Angel Stankov for a gentle and lovely Elegy by Kenneth Frazelle. The violist often carried the main focus of the work with the other three mostly in supporting roles.

We have never been enamored of the xylophone family of instruments, so we are relieved to report having enjoyed the pure chime-like tones of selections from "Spring Sets" by Sherwood Shaffer, the first composition faculty member at the NCSA. The composer was sparing in the use of vibrato while delightful in the range of color, which was brought out brilliantly by John R. Beck on his vibraphone. From Set I, "Rainsong" and "Nightsky" were played, along with "Morning Call," from Set II.

Interim Dean of the School of Music, Lawrence Dillon, led a very mixed ensemble in his gorgeous setting of his own poem, "Last Lullabye," a father's song to his child in the crib. The three stanzas have three corresponding scored movements. The first stanza is legato with prominent parts for the viola and clarinet, the second is fast and agitated with tenor saxophone more prominent, and the viola and clarinet return in the slower last stanza. The solo cello underpinned the last line, "my only one." It would be difficult to imagine a more sensitive expression of the text than that of soprano Taylor. She was joined by Ronald Rudkin, clarinet, James Kalyn, tenor saxophone, Genualdi, violin, Eichenauer, viola, Rosen, cello, and Eric Larsen, piano. Ever since we reviewed the Albany CD "Chamber Music by Lawrence Dillon," we have looked forward to every opportunity to hear further compositions of his. All such occasions have been musically rewarding, including this one.