“Artists in Exile”

By Will Bullock

I heard an exquisite recital with a long title: “Artists in Exile: New Beginnings that Transformed the Performing Arts in America” at the Unitarian edisonChurch in Carmel last Sunday. Artists were soprano Katherine Edison (right) and pianists Mark Neiwirth and Melinda Coffey Armstead. Composers featured were Antonín Dvořák, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Samuel Barber and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

The program title came from Joseph Horowitzʼs book by the same name, the concert theme from Katherine, and all three performers contributed to the repertoire. Melinda, Katherine and Mark sketched the personal history for each composer, who had been in the US as an immigrant or long-term visitor, and spoke a little about the emotional atmosphere at the time of each composer’s work. Translations of Russian and German lyrics accompanied the program, plus Barberʼs James Agee text, a great help in following the afternoon program.

Melinda was my piano teacher some years ago, and, amazingly, this was the first time I heard her perform in concert. What an experience to hear all the subtleties she tried to teach me—still a distant aspiration in my own playing—done to perfection with such grace where inner melodies are audible but subservient, as in her performance of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s piano transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “How fair this spot.”

Each piece seemed to open up with the clean and precise dynamics that both Melinda and Mark gave to the performance; I felt close to the composerʼs intention as it was interpreted with their lucidity and heart, especially in the complex textures of Stravinskyʼs Five Easy Duets.

Following the last note of their duet, Rachmaninoffʼs Barcarolle in G Minor, a breathless hush fell over the audience. A hush too after Melinda played the well-known 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where the inner melodies added so much to my experience. And there were Kleenex and tears in the audience during Barberʼs Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Katherineʼs rendering of “Mariettaʼs Lied” from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt.

I do not know much about voice artistry, but Katherine’s voice, range, and interpretations greatly impressed me. These three artists have been friends for more than a few years, which without doubt contributed to the cohesion of the entire presentation. Melinda and Mark were exquisite, Katherine sensational, and the drawing room recital on the whole a rare treat.

Longtime Carmel resident Will Bullock loves music and playing the piano. He has a large clientele among local home- and business owners who value his sensitive eye for color and fine finishes.