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Á la carte, a new concert series in Greensboro, held its second concert this week. The series is directed by Clara O'Brien (UNCG voice faculty) and Dr. Lance Hulme (NC Central University) and is intended to represent music "of all types including classical repertoire, jazz, and world music." The series also seeks to promote music not often heard, "purposely mixing styles and genres under the inclusive philosophy that all well-crafted music is valuable and worthy of presentation to the public."
Thursday night's performance certainly lived up to the PR, with music from the 17th through the 21st centuries – a Baroque cantata, a folk song, a couple of contemporary jazz numbers, Brahms, and a couple of songs from the 1980s all served up in an early 20th-century Gothic Revival setting – the First Presbyterian Church.
The evening of music making began before the performers were "on stage" in front of the audience. Mezzo-soprano O'Brien started her vocalizing before she entered the sanctuary; this led straight into the traditional Appalachian folk/gospel song "Wayfaring Stranger," arranged by Hulme, who also was pianist. This was a haunting arrangement with occasional rhapsodic bursts from the piano, but nothing that covered O'Brien's rich and soulful singing. Hulme later compared the setting of this tune to Copland's Old American Songs.
Shoot back more than 300 years to a cantata by Barbara Strozzi (1619 Venice-1677 Padua). During her lifetime, she published eight collections of songs (more than her male contemporaries, apparently), all without the patronage of court or church.
L'Astratto (The Estranged One) is part of her Op. 8 collection of songs and is a dramatic cantata for one singer (O'Brien) and continuo (Hulme on harpsichord and Timothy Holley on cello). The text involves a woman who tries to sing of her love, beginning several different songs, but she is unable to accurately catch her mood and breaks off each one until she comes to the conclusion she has sung too much. The 10-minute work changes mood rapidly, with fast keyboard and cello work strongly played by both Hulme and Holley. But it was O'Brien who caught the humor and the mock-pathos of the text so exquisitely.
Next up was a couple of jazz tunes written by NC Central Professor Baron Tymas while he was living in Montreal. The crack ensemble featured strong playing from guitarist Tymas with Annalise Stalls, saxophones, Aaron Gross, bass, and Thomas Taylor, drums.
The opening "Do Right," which Tymas explained, tried to catch the ambience of Montreal. From where this listener was sitting, it seems that Montreal must be a pretty happening place. The second number (I couldn't catch the title) featured a Pat Metheny-ish sound and allowed for Taylor to display an incredible number of colors on the drums.
"Emerging artists" Brandon Ironside, violin, and Kristen Ironside, piano, performed an original work by Hulme, the first movement ("Getting Reel") of his Reel to Real sonata. Hulme told the audience that he wanted to compose a virtuosic piece for a violinist that incorporated several traditional Appalachian dances, hence the title. Hulme's grandfather was a fiddler and had a collection of authentic reels, so apparently, the grandson comes to this interest in Appalachia honestly.
As you might expect, the movement was chocked full of dazzling fiddle playing, all cleanly performed by violinist Ironside. Occasionally there was some respite for the fiddler, but that only provided a spotlight to shine on the pianist. Rhythmic vitality was palpable from both performers from beginning to end.
Welsh-born Hilary Tann (b. 1947) now lives in upstate New York. Songs of the Cotton Grass is a cycle of four songs, written over the course of six years to texts by Welsh composer Menna Elfyn. "A Girl's Song to Her Mother," the last song of the set, paired O'Brien with Susan Fancher on soprano saxophone. This "reverse lullaby" has the daughter singing reminiscences to her mother. The tender memories are hauntingly set, and O'Brien and Fancher seamlessly merged their melodic lines together.
The Ironsides returned for a performance of the F-A-E Sonata, a work written by three different composers for the violin virtuoso of the 19th century, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). His personal motto was "Frei aber einsam" (Free but Alone), hence the title. The "Scherzo," by Brahms, is a giant ABA affair, full of full-throated lyricism as well as a fair amount of devilish passages, all of which were played with unerring passion by violinist and pianist.
The evening concluded with two pieces by Canadian song writer/performer Bruce Cockburn (b. 1945), "The Rose Above the Sky" and "Anything Can Happen." The band: Hulme on synth, the jazz quartet, cellist Holley and O'Brien (now using a mic). A perfect ending to a truly eclectic evening of music. The small audience was attentive and enthusiastic throughout.
Three concerts are planned for next year – September, January and March. Hopefully more people will become aware of the series and take advantage of the high level of music making AND the free admission.