Ensemble Monterey, Feb 8, 2014

Rarely heard music welcomed

By Elise Rotchford

Ensemble Monterey presented “Sparrows”, a program of largely unfamiliar 20th and 21st century classical music, in the intimate setting of St. Philip’s Church in Carmel Valley on Saturday night. The concert opened with local composer Stephen Tosh’s refreshing Trio for flute, clarinet and piano of 1994, its lush, lilting harmonies flavored with such enticing influences as French impressionism and American ragtime. In the third movement, a rag-rondo, the flute and clarinet engaged in a playful call-response which set the stage for the rest of the music to come.

Depicting the final sad moments in the life of Diana Spencer, Death of a Princess was definitely a crowd pleaser, thanks to its pianistic virtuosity, tango inflections and exuberance. Its also-local composer, Emmy Award-winning John Wineglass, has a talent for balancing consonance and dissonance so that the listener comes away with an enriched experience of the more complex harmonies. After the first movement, A Mystery, rumbling strings moved into The Chase as it ascended chromatically toward its final destination, the adagio Diana’s Lament. In that last movement, weeping violin and cello were joined by pianist Lucy Faridany who played with sensitivity and precision, and effectively moved toward its emotional climax with the support of a full-bodied ascending bass line.

French composer Albert Roussel’s enchanting Serenade for flute, harp and string trio, composed in 1925, drew the first half of the program to its conclusion, with Carmel-based concertmaster David Dally and veteran Santa Cruz area musicians, flutist Lars Johannesson, harpist Jennifer Cass, violinist Susan Brown and cellist Kristin Garbeff.

The final piece in the program, Joseph Schwantner’s Sparrows of 1979 received a standing ovation. Or rather, its solo soprano Lori Schulman (pictured) did. She stole the show with her clear Loriand lyrical tone and effortless singing of the 15 stanzas of Haiku poems written by Kobayashi Issa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Schulman exudes mastery over her instrument as shown in the difficulty of this piece. Without much melodic contrast between stanzas, Schulman sang with a lyrical and ethereal quality. Unfortunately the instrumental ensemble covered her up except where sparsely orchestrated. The musicians singing drones in the background added a rich warm color to the flute, harp and strings.