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The Black Mozart Comes to Asheville

Event  Information

Asheville -- ( Mon., Mar. 19, 2018 )

Pan Harmonia: JS Bach at 333 and Chevalier de Saint Georges
Performed by Brittnee Siemon, mezzo-soprano; Kate Steinbeck, flute; Rosalind Buda, bassoon; Mariya Potapova and Karen Pommerich, violin; Anastásia Yarbrough, viola
$20-$5 -- The Block off Biltmore , (828) 254-7123; office@panharmonia.org , http://www.pan-harmonia.org/ -- 7:30 PM

March 19, 2018 - Asheville, NC:

A collection of talented collaborative musicians associated with Pan Harmonia performed works by Joseph Bologne (le Chevalier de Saint-Georges) and J.S. Bach to a capacity audience at The Block off biltmore, a performance venue in a corner of the YMI Center, built by James Vesey Miller, a former slave, and one of the oldest African-American cultural centers in the country. This concert celebrated 333 years since Bach's birth, and brought to Western North Carolina the work of a talented black classical composer.

The bad news: The Bach pieces suffered from the lack of an appropriate continuo instrument. In pre-concert remarks Kate Steinbeck, the leader of Pan Harmonia, said that scheduling problems had prevented Barbara Weiss from joining the ensemble on harpsichord. (Barbara was in the audience, so I presume it was rehearsal conflicts.) I assume Franklin Keel, the usual Pan Harmonia cellist, also had conflicts. So, the continuo part (the bass line) was played by Rosalind Buda on the bassoon. It is almost impossible to play a bassoon in the background; it has too much dynamic presence with its insistent rich timbre. A good continuo, while providing a subtle underpinning, should never be obtrusive. You shouldn't notice it, but you would notice if it were omitted. And unfortunately for this concert, we noticed the bassoon constantly.

The instrumentalists for the evening included Steinbeck on wooden flute, Buda on bassoon, violinists Karen Pommerich and Mariya Potapova and violist Anastásia Yarbrough. Mezzo-soprano Brittnee Siemon, in her first season with Pan Harmonia, was the vocal soloist for four Bach arias.

The program appropriately interspersed Bach and Saint-Georges, but I will review the Bach first. Sinfonia No.1 from Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209, began the program. It featured well-articulated solo passages by Pommerich and Steinbeck. Two Bach arias followed. "Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild!" from the Cantata BWV 79 and the familiar and beautiful "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" from the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, were well sung by Siemon, but particularly in "Erbarme dich" the instruments were out of balance, too loud to mesh with her contemplative voice. Perhaps this was a result of not having a subdued continuo.

After intermission, "Aus Liebe will mein Heilen sterben" from the St. Matthew Passion was performed on flute and strings, with Pommerich playing the vocal line. This was perhaps the best Bach performance of the evening. Two more Bach arias brought Siemon back on stage. The first, the forceful "Mir ekelt mehr zu leben" was in better balance than the more contemplative earlier arias. "Laudamus Te" from the Mass in B minor was the final work on the program. The solo violin passages are heavily ornamented, as is the vocal line throughout. Siemon had intonation problems with her complex passages.

Born in Guadeloupe, his mother Nanon a slave, Joseph Bologne was recognized by his French planter father (George Bologne de Saint-Georges) as having great talent and was sent to France for education. Titled "le Chevalier de Saint-Georges," he had a distinguished career beginning as a teenager, becoming known as "le Mozart noir" in French musical circles. A champion fencer as well as a virtuoso violinist, he conducted a major symphony orchestra and was lionized in French society. His ably-constructed compositions are notably violin concertos and chamber works to feature his violin playing. After the French revolution and after his death in 1799, his music faded into obscurity for two hundred years. He is now recognized as the most important Black composer of the Classical era, and his music is undergoing a revival.

At this concert, we heard Four Dances (1780) from L'Amant anonyme (one of Saint-Georges' six comic operas). The dances were performed in the order No.1, No.4, No.3 and No.2, a nice choice since No.1 and No.4 were in ternary form (ABA) while the other two were in rondeau form (ABACA) and showed rising complexity. The C theme of No.2, in particular, was in a related minor key and this dance was my personal favorite.

Nestled between Bach works during the second half, Saint-Georges' Quartet in G minor, Op.1 No.3, was probably composed in 1770 when he was just twenty-five years old. Very dance-like, it has an interesting development section. The musicians finished their performance with an amusing accelerando in the coda of this delightful work.

Pan Harmonia continues to impress us with its innovative programming, both in concert venues and in repertoire. They are constantly seeking to expand our musical horizons.