Chamber Music, Early Music, Recital Review

Piccolo Spoleto 2007: L'Organo, Spotlight Chamber Music, & Early Music Series

June 5, 2007 - Charleston, SC:

If the 170 events of the Spoleto Festival USA were not enough, the music lover is also confronted with some 470 events presented during the same time-frame by the City of Charleston's Piccolo Festival. Piccolo was created to be a cultural outreach for those who could not afford the high prices of tickets for Spoleto. Originally, most Piccolo events were free, but economic realities have forced the charging of nominal ticket prices. Events range from free programs in the parks for children, to jazz and drama by local or regional artists to several musical series that merit the attention of Spoleto attendees.

June 1, 2007, St. Michael's Episcopal Church: It is not for nothing that Charleston is called the "Holy City." During the early colonial period, wealthy planters who found their scope within a given Episcopal church limited would leave that church and band together to build another. It seems there is a major Episcopal church every other block. These, along with other major Protestant and Catholic churches, and the historic Beth Elohim Temple, have major organs from a wide selection of builders. Many are new, dating from post-Hurricane Hugo renovations. Piccolo Spoleto thus offers a series of free organ recitals called "L'Organo."

Leon W. Couch III, currently College Organist at Converse College, chose an eclectic program that mixed baroque classics with modern fare. The current organ was built by Kenneth Jones and Associates of Bray, Ireland, in 1994. Jones restored the original 1767 Snetzler Organ Case at that time. The organ has three manuals, 40 stops, and 51 ranks.

J. S. Bach's Toccata in F, S.540/1, is one of his longest keyboard works. The opening 176 measures reflect the influence of Pachelbel's pedal point toccatas and Buxtehude's virtuosic pedal solos while the remainder (250 measures) blends the invigorating rhythms and forms of the Italian concerto with harmonic drama and Bach's famous counterpoint. Couch delivered a stirring rendition.

Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) was a blind pianist for whom both Haydn and Mozart composed works. Her "Sicilienne" was originally written for piano and violin. This organ transcription revealed a gentle and lovely piece, its rhythms perfectly reflecting its name.

The young Bach walked over 200 miles to hear Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707). Buxtehude's Praeludium in G Minor, Bux.148, opens with a dramatic toccata and abounds with complex counterpoint. Couch kept each musical line exceptionally clear.

From his perch at the keyboard, organist Couch drew his listeners' attention to the Theme and Variations on "O Waly, Waly" by Janet Linker (b.1938), a rare example of a wedding waltz.

Fully to appreciate the evergreen favorite, the "Variations on 'America'" by Charles Ives, Couch provided the music for "America" and the text for all four stanzas. After having the audience sing two stanzas, he lit into the keyboards and pedals for a no-holds-barred performance of the Ives. The mimicking of a calliope was delicious, and the mix of dances was hilarious.

June 1, 2007, St. Philips Episcopal Church: The St. Petersburg String Quartet has been a great favorite with Piccolo Spoleto audiences for many seasons, and this concert was their welcome return to the series after a short absence. Sight lines are uneven in St. Philips Episcopal Church, and the space is more resonant than is ideal. (For this music, First (Scots) has proved to be a better venue.) This fine Russian string quartet has been a welcome visitor to the finer chamber music series of the Triangle and the Triad.

Bedrich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, T.116 ("From My Life") is one of his most personal statements. The first movement represents the composer's yearning for Romantic expression. Smetana's youthful love of dancing is recalled in the polkas in the second movement. The following slow movement is a song that recalls the composer's love for his first wife. The finale portrays Smetana's successful incorporation of nationalism into his music while the composer's descent into deafness and madness is represented by a piercing note played by the first violin at the very top of its range over low tremolo string accompaniment. Hall reverberation made me question some of the intonation during the opening movement, but all the exposed notes and, above all, the shrill warning of deafness were spot on thereafter. Phrasing was idiomatic.

Russians know their Tchaikovsky, and the St. Petersburg String Quartet played the socks off of the composer's String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11, known as the "Accordion." The heart of the piece is the second movement, marked Andante cantabile. Tchaikovsky based the melody on a folk song ("Sidel Vanya") that alternates with another highly expressive theme. There was no lack of Slavic soulfulness in the St. Petersburg ensemble's performance.

June 3, 2007, First (Scots) Presbyterian Church: This city has its own healthy early music movement, headed by recorder virtuoso Steve Rosenberg and largely based at the College of Charleston. Piccolo Spoleto's 3:00 p.m. Early Music Series, hosted by Rosenberg in First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, is one of its most popular series. After years in too noisy or too small venues, Early Music has found an ideal venue in the superb acoustics of this neoclassical church. Viols and rebecs can easily be heard, even in the back balcony. Regional and nationally-known guest artists join with Rosenberg's Charleston Pro Musica and Madrigal Singers and the Charleston Baroque Ensemble. The Baltimore Consort has been one of the most frequent guests, and I have always tried to catch as many of their programs as possible.

The Baltimore Consort's June 3 program was titled "Anew Dundee: Early and Traditional Music of Scotland." Five of the sixteen instrumental and vocal selections are available on their latest Dorian CD. Others can be found on several other CDs that focus on Scotland. Treble, tenor, and bass viols were played by three consort members — Mary Anne Ballard, Mark Cudek, and Larry Lipkis. Founding member Mindy Rosenfeld was an energetic performer on a range of wooden flutes, recorders, and whistles. Cudek also took up the cittern and Ballard doubled on rebec while Ronn McFarlane was brilliant on the lute.

Long-time fans missed the Consort's inimitable vocalist Custer LaRue, but their new singer, soprano Danielle Svonavec, has a similar timbre and pure intonation. Among the old favorites performed were "The gowans are gay," "Jockey loves his Moggy dearly," "Lord Ronald," "Gypsen Davy," and "On the banks of Helicon." The concert blended the ensemble's scholarship with their sense of fun. It may date me, but I used to describe the Baltimore Consort's approach as "early music meets the Saturday Night Live band." The Baltimore Consort is no collective of dry musicologists: they "get down" and "groove" like a jazz band with showy solos, riffs, and all!

When weather reports predict afternoon showers in Charleston, take along an umbrella! Torrential rains trapped me in Dock Street theatre after a Spoleto chamber music concert and kept me from the Baltimore Consort's second June 5 program, "Orpheus in Italy: Music in the Time of Leonardo and Michelangelo." A rarely performed work by the great sculptor was promised.

June 3, 2007, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim: The Piccolo Festival's 6:00 p.m. Spotlight Chamber Music Series takes place in a wide range of some of the city's finest venues. KKBE is the second oldest synagogue in the United States and the oldest in continuous use. The current colonnaded temple was dedicated in 1841 and is justly regarded one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the nation. The perfectly proportioned hall is ideal for chamber music. This concert was part of an annual celebration of the world of Jewish culture.

Current Charleston Symphony concertmaster Yuriy Bekker was featured in an eclectic program of works by Jewish composers. This was his second time playing during the festival; he had been an associate concertmaster in the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in 2002. He was superbly accompanied by pianist Andrew Armstrong, who appeared on the Spotlight Series in 2000 and 2001 as a member of the Caramoor Virtuosi. Triad music lovers may remember Armstrong as a soloist with the Greensboro Symphony with then-conductor Stuart Malina.

Aaron Copland's Sonata for Violin and Piano and Ernest Bloch's Baal Shem, for violin and piano, constituted the "meat" of this recital. The Copland received an ideal stark and rhythmically-vital reading. The heart-felt Jewish melodies of the Bloch were brought out with full, rich sound. Balances between instruments were excellent. The soulful "Hebrew Melody," Op. 33, by Joseph Achron (1886-1943) was new to me.

As dessert, Bekker and Armstrong turned in enthralling performances of Heifetz's fun-filled arrangements of selections from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and three of Fritz Kreisler's pieces: "Liebeslied," "Liebesfreud," and "Tambourin chinois." This recital was delightful from beginning to end, and Bekker played with a fine warm tone and impeccable intonation.

June 4, 2007, First (Scots) Presbyterian Church. With its classic Charleston white grill covering its pipes, First Scots' 1992 Ontko and Young organ is one of the most beautiful in the city. It has four manuals, 47 registers, and 71 ranks. The organ towers behind the pulpit at the front of the neo-classical church while its keyboard, located over the entrance, is linked by radio waves. Jeeyoon Choi, a native of Korea, is the church's Director of Music and Organist; she received her Doctor of Music degree from Boston University in May 2007. Her comments from the keyboard were hard to hear and would have benefited from amplification. Her selection of three large works surveyed Baroque, Classical and Romantic styles.

For his Prelude and Fugue in C minor, S.546, Bach added a prelude, written around 1723, to an earlier existing fugue from his Weimar days. The grandiose prelude is followed by a five-voice fugue that ends in an eight-voice cadence. Choi gave a restrained and solid performance.

She was much more impressive in two early and late Romantic works. The Sonata No. 6 in D minor, Op. 65, by Felix Mendelssohn, reflects the composer's conversion from Judaism to Protestantism. The chorale, "Vater Unser," serves as the theme for set of variations that open the four-movement sonata. César Franck's Chorale III, in A Minor, has a structure like a sonata with two themes in the toccata and chorale, a lovely adagio, and a final section that, after complex modulations, ends brilliantly with the two themes played with the full power of the Grand choeur pipes.

June, 4, 2007, City Gallery at Waterfront Park: There is no more spectacular venue for music in the city than the City Gallery. Located in the middle of the stunning redevelopment of Cooper River waterfront, floor-to-ceiling windows behind the musicians give a panoramic view of the harbor. This concert featured Chamber Music Charleston, founded in 2005 by Sandra Nikolajevs; the ensemble consists of a flexible core ensemble of 13 local professional musicians. Such a chamber music team is very much modeled on the innovative approach used by Charles Wadsworth at the original Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1953. The program combined two masterpieces of 20th-century music introduced by a timely tie-in with the main festival's opera series.

A five-movement Suite from Die Dreigroschenopera (The Threepenny Opera) by Kurt Weill (1900-50) made an ideal compliment to the Spoleto Festival USA's production of the composer's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Clarinetist Charles Messersmith was joined by violinist Nonoko Okada and cellist Timothy O'Malley for an appropriately rhythmically-vital and rambunctious dash through such memorable selections as "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" and "The Tango Ballad."

Shostakovich's soul-shattering Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, is one of the last century's towering masterpieces, on the surface encompassing the horrors of the rise of fascism and World War II while having Stalin's brutal repressions as a subtext. Violinist Okada and cellist O'Malley were joined by pianist Irina Pevzner. She recalled her childhood piano lessens being overseen by Shostakovich's stern portrait and the growth of her insight into the composer's works. Their performance made use of a very wide dynamic range and stylish phrasing. The stark desolation of the Largo and the relentless drive of the finale were rewarded with the highest audience compliment — stunned silence preceding a well-deserved standing ovation.

Clarinetist Messersmith recounted that he so loved performing Bartók's Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, Sz.111, that he once accepted a new pair of shoes as a payment from impecunious presenters. The unusual trio was commissioned for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti, who made a classic recording of it. The ensemble made the most of the contrasting rhythms in the opening dance-based "Verbunkos." The following movement, "Piheno" ("Relaxation") was given plenty of atmosphere. Okada played an extra violin with several retuned strings (scordatura) used to open the third movement with verve. Throughout but especially in the concluding "Sebes" ("Fast Dance"), Messersmith brought out the widest kaleidoscope of instrumental color. More than once I was reminded of wild klezmer music. Pevzner was very much an equal partner at the keyboard.

June 5, 2007, St. Matthews Lutheran Church. This church has a great space to be exploited by an organist, and Robert P. Ridgell, currently the twenty-first Assistant Organist of historic Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York City, did that in spades. St. Matthews' 1967 Austin Organ has three manuals, forty-five stops, and fifty-eight ranks. He chose his registrations for the widest possible color effects.

Works are rarely repeated on L'Organo programs, but Ridgell's brilliant performance fully justified his choice of J. S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor, S.546. From my location I was fortunate to see his amazing work with the organ pedals.

Late French Romantic pieces such as chunks of Widor organ symphonies are more common than modern pieces. Ridgell made full use of the main pipes over the church's entrance, coupled with an enclosed set of pipes in the left corner of the front of the church. He conjured a myriad of colors over the course of the fifth movement ("God is immense. God is eternal. God is Love") from Olivier Messiaen's Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité.

Ridgell's mastery of complex counterpoint was amazing in the last two selections. Max Reger's "Phantasie über den Choral 'Straf' mich nicht in deinem Zorn'" is incredibly complex, with intertwined lines. Before the concert, Ridgell had been given three themes to use for his improvisations. His combining of the Prayer from Humperdick's opera Hansel und Gretel, the Shepherds' chorus from Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, and "Summertime" from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess almost defied belief. All three strands were interwoven into a cogent whole.

Note: For all our reviews of Charleston events this year, linked from one page, click here.