Les Amies Harmoniques are a group of friends, all active members of United Church of Chapel Hill, who enjoy making music together. All save flutist Ellye Walsh are amateur musicians with other vocations making the usual demands. They are Candace Marles, soprano, Renée McBride, pianist/organist, Ericka Patillo, harpist, and Jaci Wilkinson, cellist. Each of them are well trained and accomplished in their musical skills. (I wrote of Walsh's performance in a 2011 UNC production of The Magic Flute – "Special mention is deserved by flutist Ellye Walsh, who made Mozart's conception truly magical.") They put together a concert of diverse and fascinating music, some of which might have escaped our attention were it not for such knowledgeable music enthusiasts and concerts such as this.
The program opened with organist McBride at the console of the pipe organ and a performance of Olivier Messiaen's masterpiece, "Apparition de l'église éternelle." Like J.S. Bach, Messiaen considered music as the language one addressed to God. Therefore, his compositions are not intended as entertainment but are events to be experienced through the medium of sound, conceived with hints of color and echoes of birds reflecting the experiences of the divine. McBride captured it all in this stunning vision of the church eternal: ambition, acceptance, pride, devotion, suffering, victory, and much more that cannot be described with words.
Soprano Marles, with McBride at the piano, brought us back to earth, or at least part way, with their stirring performance of the aria "Madre, Pietosa Vergine" from Giuseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino. After tragedy interrupts her plans to elope, Donna Leonora seeks sanctuary in a monastery intending to spend the rest of her life as a hermit. She pleads with the Virgin to forgive her sins. Marles' rich and mellow voice touchingly conveyed the pathos of Leonora's circumstance.
The music of composer Christopher Palestrant was then featured. Palestrant is currently Professor of Music Composition and Theory at Elizabeth City State University of the University of North Carolina, where he was honored as the 2010 "Teacher of the Year" by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. He is involved in a wide variety of musical activities and has received numerous awards and recognitions for his compositions. While he has written in diverse styles and forms, it appears that his approach to music is not esoteric, but rather down to earth with a good ear for what pleases the listener as well as expanding the listening experience.
We heard Palestrant’s "The Town Waltzes" from Cotillion Suite as performed by cellist Wilkinson with McBride at the piano. Beginning with a gentle evocative melody with easygoing arpeggios in the piano, it develops and changes into another more rhythmically driven theme. After further development it returns to the first theme and so ends where it began. Wilkinson's performance demonstrated both technical and expressive skills. Originally written for viola in 2011, this was a premiere of the arrangement for cello.
The next selection was the premiere of Palestrant's Stages. It is a tribute and a memorial to the composer's friend only identified as Rob. He was apparently a stage director. He and the composer were passionate about music – which is another stage. And then there are the stages of life they shared and, in the end, the stages of grief, as laid out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five movements of the piece describe these emotional stages by interweaving music the friends shared: the denial of drifting in key-less music, the anger of Beethoven, the bargaining of Bach's precocious counterpoint, the depression of deep Mahler and finally – after working through the Tristan chord – acceptance, not quite bright and sunny, but acceptance never-the-less. It was a moving musical experience and connected with memories of my own musical friendships. McBride, Patillo and Walsh performed it with musical and emotional knowledge that brought the music to life.
After an intermission, the delight awaiting the audience was seven of the settings of Spanish love poems by the Catalan composer Fernando Jaumandreu Obradors (1897-1945). After learning piano from his mother, Obradors taught himself composition, harmony and counterpoint. In the first of his four volumes of Canciones clásicas españolas he captures all the charm and beauty of his native Catalan region. The seven selections sung by Marles ranged in emotional fervor from passionate longing to whimsical jealousy, from the warm comfort of love to the playful pleasures of lovers. McBride's accompaniment was alive with the passion and playfulness of these charming songs.
The next selection featured the flute and cello as a duo. Gabriela Lena Frank's father is an American of Lithuanian Jewish heritage and her mother is Peruvian of Chinese descent. She grew up in Berkeley, California. Her parents met when her father was a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru in the 1960s. Frank's work often draws on her multicultural background, especially her mother's Peruvian heritage. In many of her compositions, she elicits the sounds of Latin American instruments such as Peruvian pan flute or charango guitar although the works typically are for Western classical instruments. Cuatro bosquejos pre-incaicos (Four Pre-Incan Sketches) fit this description to a tee. Both instruments are played with unusual techniques producing haunting and evocative timbres. The thematic material seemed both strange and somehow familiar, distant and yet pleasant. The performance was winsome and the audience was enthusiastic in applause.
The closing selection was "The Love-Song of the Lady of Granada," one of many poems by David Munro set to music by English composer Carey Blyton, who wrote incidental music for the BBC's Doctor Who television series and is probably best remembered for his song "Bananas In Pyjamas" (1969). "Love-Song" is scored for soprano, piano, harp, and flute. While the use of both piano and harp in a small ensemble is unusual, Blyton's combination and contrast of the instruments is creative and effective. The artists – Marles, McBride, Patillo, and Walsh – projected their obvious pleasure in performing this piece which was, in turn, conveyed effectively to a delighted audience.
For an encore Walsh played a tour de force, swinging and jazzy, that employed a lot of vocalization sounds and half-blown techniques. It reminded me of Ian Scott Anderson's work with the band Jethro Tull.