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Vocalist Clara O'Brien and composer Lance Hulme are not afraid of variety. Early in their careers, Fulbright grants brought them both to Europe, where for two decades they sharpened their skills and broadened their knowledge in the continental tradition. Their engagements as performers and arrangers encompassed everything from traditional Classical music to Jazz and Pop to experimental electronic music. While living in Germany, they directed Ensemble Surprise, a multi-faceted group whose motto was "700 Years of New Music."
Now a few years on from their Grand Tour, O'Brien and Hulme have both secured teaching positions in central North Carolina. While they might have traded some of the excitement of freelance work for the relative stability of academia, they've never abandoned their embrace of stylistic and chronological multiplicity. À la carte, their new concert series at Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church, embodies this philosophy. Thursday was opening night for À la carte, and the program brimmed with musical color.
The first selection, Antonio Vivaldi's cantata Cessate, omai cessate, made use of First Presbyterian's lush acoustics. O'Brien is a rich mezzo with seemingly limitless power. Nevertheless, she cut into the Vivaldi with precision, making frequent use of a haunting and delicate straight tone. The ensemble, led by Hulme, was an all-star collection of brilliant Triad locals: Wendy Rawls and Rebekah Webb on violin, Scott Rawls on viola, Timothy Holley on cello, and Susan Bates on harpsichord – a sparkling opening!
Next, Hulme introduced Professor Lenora Helm Hammonds and her North Carolina Central Universty Vocal Jazz Ensemble. The voluminous reverberation which so enhanced the Vivaldi might have hurt the nimble singers and their accompanying combo; but to our surprise and delight, all dozen-plus members of the choir carried a microphone. Properly amplified, the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble's sound was absolutely enchanting: clean and shimmering, but also warm and rich. Such was their precision that when they locked into a tight harmony, the sound through the loudspeakers sparkled like a fine studio recording.
Their two selections, Duke Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone" and Bobby McFerrin's "My Better Half," demonstrated both lush ensemble singing and virtuoso soloists. The small combo of bass, piano, and drum kit provided splashes of color spouting up through the smooth sheen of the choir. What a treat! The audience showed their appreciation with vigorous applause.
Lance Hulme is a fine performer and conductor, but his deepest musical investment is in composing. For the evening's third selection, O'Brien and soprano Elena Flores gave us the opening scene from Hulme's opera The Ebony Tower, based on the novella of the same name by John Fowles. Uniquely, this opening duet is a vocalise, a wordless vocal composition.
Violist Rawls introduced a gorgeous leaping melody while James Douglass provided harmonically rich textures at the piano. O'Brien and Flores echoed the opening melody with dovetailing phrases, one voice fading as the other entered imperceptibly. As the movement unfolded, the two voices intertwined in a lovely variety of textures and chord colors. Hulme is a craftsman with a fine ear and a formidable technique.
The following two pieces highlighted Flores and O'Brien individually. First was "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß" from Franz Lehar's Giuditta. Flores, again accompanied by Douglass, literally leapt through the number, dancing down the isle of First Presbyterian as she sang the titular character's signature aria. The audience returned Flores' enthusiasm with glowing applause.
O'Brien, in stark contrast, tackled the thorny and jarring "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" by Charles Ives. Introducing this famous 20th-century art song to the audience, Hulme characterized Ives as "the definitive American composer," a somewhat hyperbolic but not unwarranted description. As evidence of his claim, Hulme described Ives' "broad and Democratic pallet," which included military marches, folk fiddling, Protestant hymns, parlor songs, and European Classical music.
"General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" makes use of raucous non-tonal clusters in the piano accompaniment, imitating drums and bells. Appending phrases in the vocal part are interjections of "Hallelujiah!" The NCCU Jazz Vocal Ensemble, hidden away in the chancel, provided the responses. O'Brien, Douglass, and the choir made their way through this difficult piece with certainty and conviction.
The concert closed with what Hulme described as the theme of the À la carte series – Rogers and Hammersteins' "My Favorite Things." With Hulme now at the piano, O'Brien introduced a slow and sultry version of the melody. Soon the tempo kicked up as the NCCU ensemble and their combo joined in. It's hard to imagine a more fitting close to what was truly a "broad and Democratic" program. Bravi!