Camerata Singers, March 8

John KozaBy Scott MacClelland

JOHN KOZA dreams big on behalf of his Camerata Singers. Sometimes too big. On Sunday afternoon at First Presbyterian in Monterey, he put his 35+ singers on the spot with the opening set, Brahms’ Vier Quartette, Opus 92, with piano accompaniment by the estimable Pauline Troia. These are gorgeous pieces, but extremely challenging to pull off due to their implicitly elastic phrasing and textures so richly woven that, here, the choristers never sounded secure in their singing. Instead they sounded lugubrious, which does not at all accord with the composer’s score. Only in the rhythmically animated Warum, to a text by Goethe, did the chorus at last start to demonstrate confidence.

Brahms bookended the program, finishing it with the charming love songs of his Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op. 103, with words adapted by Hugo Conrat from folksongs, composed in 1887 and published the following year. Here the rhyming verses and steadier tempos gave the singers the security they needed to be at their most expressive. In this case, Brahms added to the recipe of his earlier Liebeslieder waltzes—which would have been a better concert opener—with a goodly dash of Hungarian paprika and some of that nation’s robust Bull’s Blood wine. I was especially intrigued by the nocturnal eighth song in the set, “Listen, the wind moves through the branches—sadly softly.”

Called “Brits & Brahms” the program devoted its central section to works by Gustav Holst, Arthur Sullivan, Gerald Finzi, Charles Villiers Stanford (an Irish émigré to London) and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here was some of the best singing on offer. Among my favorites was Rest by RVW, to a text by Christina Rosetti.

Then the program went off-theme, sort of, in favor of Schumann’s Zigeunerleben, a riotous depiction of an overnight gypsy revelry that I wish I had personally attended, and a stunning gypsy nonsense song by Zoltán Kodály, sung in Hungarian.

Once on solid footing, the Camerata Singers strutted their stuff.