Melinda Coffey Armstead

By Scott MacClelland

THE CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL brought Melinda Coffey to the Monterey Peninsula. That was in 1988 and the final years of Sandor Salgo’s tenure as music director. At the time Janina Fialkowska was the festival’s featured solo pianist. When Bruno Weil was hired to replace the retiring Salgo he soon decided that the piano was no longer compatible with Baroque music. But, of course, it remained crucial for rehearsing the choral ensembles.

We doff our hat to Melinda for finding ways to remain a mainstay of music in the community from then until now and to keep current with changing times, in particular her new program, “Still the Mind Smiles,” in tandem with well-known local poet and bard Taelen Thomas for a specially crafted program based on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers this weekend at Hidden Valley in Carmel Valley. Oh, and for making her own kind of mischief. (See her in cat’s ears above.)  

Coffey, who grew up in Healdsburg and studied piano there with a pre-revolution Russian ex-pat from the St Petersburg Conservatory, went on to study at UC Santa Barbara, L’École des Hautes Etudes Musicales in Switzerland and the University of British Columbia. She has performed as a recitalist and chamber musician in the U.S., Canada, England, France, Israel and Japan. Following a Toronto performance, BBC music critic Denis Matthews wrote of her “…exquisite pianism devoted entirely to the music itself.”

Coffey, who has had church jobs since the age of 13, became music director at Church-in-the-Forest in Pebble Beach in 1995. It was there, and at the Bach Festival, that she met her future husband, Robert Armstead, who would become “the best thing that ever happened to me.” In that position she has exercised her artistry and her network of professional colleagues to provide small concerts of mostly classical music every Sunday to enhance the church service. (In the fall of ’94 her predecessor, Bill Zeitler, chose to decamp for Microsoft and Seattle and to specialize in the Benjamin Franklin-invented glass armonica, a novelty hit at Renaissance and county fairs.)

Over the years, and in fits and starts, Coffey Armstead has made numerous CD recordings. The most recent, Southerly: Art Songs of the American South, with an outstanding lyric tenor, Jos Milton. Their program consists of all new music, James Sclater’s Beyond the Rainbow (1998) of six songs to texts by Ovid Vickers, Dan Locklair’s Portraits (1983) of three songs to texts by Emily Herring Wilson, Price Walden’s Abide With Me (2015, a Milton commission) five songs to texts by Walt Whitman, C Austin Miles, Henry Francis Lyte and Philip Rice. Four songs by John Musto to texts by Langston Hughes, Shadow of the Blues (1986) completes the collection. This program was recorded at Erdman Chapel, Stevenson School, Pebble Beach, in July and August, 2015, and subsequently performed on two days in November at Mississippi College, Clinton, and the University of Mississippi, Oxford. Not only do these songs add an exquisite contribution to the art song songbook, but their music—some of it like “In the garden” from the Price Walden set is absolutely gorgeous—could not have originated in any other place than America. (Milton sings “Unknown” from the Locklair set solo.) The Journal of Singing published this rave, “Nothing quite equals the special pleasures derived from a recording that is truly fresh in its musical offerings or approach. Southerly is such a recording.…This was clearly a labor of love, executed with a relentless attention to the smallest detail, and the result is one of the most enthralling art song releases of the last twenty years…Milton’s singing is unfailingly beautiful throughout all the songs…Pianist Melinda Coffey Armstead’s wonderful playing is a consistent joy…In short, this recording is exemplary in every way.”

In recent years Coffey Armstead has turned her attention to exploring arcane corners of history and culture via lecture-recital presentations for OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at CSU Monterey Bay. These include: How the West Fell in Love with Japan (2016 & 2017), A History of Opium and the Arts (2018 & 2019), and Felis Catus: An Historical Celebration of the Domestic Cat (2018). In February of this year she became a tour docent at Tor House in Carmel (pictured above) and has created a new program of Musical Tours there. (Click HERE)

Henry Mollicone

By Scott MacClelland

THIS WEEKEND, the Los Angeles Opera will stage the premiere of Henry Mollicone’s new opera, Moses, with performances at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The production is a gift—free admission to the citizens of LA—the brainchild of LA Opera music director James Conlon, who will conduct the orchestra and chorus of accomplished area amateurs, professionals and solo voices, a massive contingent intended to dazzle the 3,000-seat capacity cathedral. Mollicone told me in a recent phone chat that fans and friends of his will be coming to LA from all over the country. (Me too.)  

Mollicone is no stranger to the Monterey Bay. His “Beatitude” Mass, composed to raise money for the homeless, was sung last season in Salinas and Monterey. Several of his works, including premieres, were performed by the Santa Cruz Symphony when Larry Granger was its music director. But perhaps he is best known for his operas, many of them premiered by Central City Opera in the mountains west of Denver. His Face on the Barroom Floor, with an O’Henry twist, is the most performed opera in America; all it needs is three singers, one piano and a barroom. Name a more portable opera if you can.

Face is joined by several more one-act operas by Mollicone, including Emperor Norton, Starbird, The Mask of Evil and, from 2016, Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land. They join Mollicone’s full-length operas, Coyote Tales, Hotel Eden and Gabriel’s Daughter, film music, music for ballet and a variety of personalized commissions, even a self-portrait in honor of his wife, Kathy’s White Knight. In 1999, he resurrected the Santa Clara University orchestra as the independent Winchester Orchestra in San Jose, which today he serves as music director emeritus.

The Los Angeles commission came by way of an introduction in 2016 to Conlon of Mollicone’s music by Frank Brownstead, now-retired director of the Cathedral Choir and long-time friend of the composer. “I was lucky,” Mollicone told me. “I thought Conlon might have been too busy to listen to my music but I was wrong about that.” Once the commission was confirmed, Mollicone went right to work.

In 2017, he submitted a first version and recorded a “horrible” CD, “with me singing through the opera. It was a weird sensation.” After comments from colleagues, Conlon said he could see what this “looks like.” In 2018, knowing that he was scheduled for some exploratory surgery, Mollicone felt he needed to complete the opera beforehand. “I finished and orchestrated it before I went into the hospital. It was the fastest work I’ve ever written.” As it turned out, he received a diagnosis of cancer, and is now being treated for it, with a positive response to date.

Conlon began his proposed annual ‘gift to LA’ six years ago with a staging of the medieval Play of Daniel. But the project advanced only by fits and starts. Conlon’s vision was as much about pageant as opera. He complained about one commission, which he felt was too difficult for the large contingent of community choirs and musicians. This time, however, Conlon told Mollicone, “We finally got it right.”

Between orchestra and choirs, Moses is a huge score that, in the space of little more than one hour details the life of the infant who was found floating among bulrushes, became a prince, then persuaded the Pharaoh through a sequence of terrible plagues to let his people go. (Mollicone said he used kazoos for the Plague of Locusts.) Contrary to his preferred involvement with creating a new work, and because preserving his health was now more important, Mollicone kept himself out of the process and deferred to Conlon and his people to work out the details. Not a bad choice; Conlon is a consummate professional with an outstanding reputation. “I will not hear the piece until March 20, my birthday,” Mollicone says.

Who could wish for a better—or more biblical—birthday present?!