SC Chamber Players ‘American Voices’

By Scott MacClelland

THE RETURN OF Carolyne Anne “CA” Jordan to the Santa Cruz Chamber Players proved to be an even bigger triumph with them than her previous appearances in Aptos. On Sunday afternoon at Christ Lutheran Church, the SF Bay Area soprano made easy work of a daunting program full of vocal hurdles, which, not least called for plenty of stamina.

Fearless stamina in Jordan’s case, and a keen instinct for subtle expression. The latter point more so given the power of her instrument. Of the six works on the program she shared with flutist Kathleen Purcell, cellist Kristin Garbeff and pianist Kumiko Uyeda (pictured, Jordan second left), she sang four of them, opening with the exquisite but challenging Knoxville, Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. James Agee’s ‘prose poem’ ultimately served as the preface to his Pulitzer-winning novel A Death in the Family, published after his death in 1955. Barber not only knew Agee personally but felt a strong identification with the sentiments told through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a small town. The musical setting was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber who premiered it 70 years ago in Boston. Barber is well-known for composing haunting melodies as well as for brilliant orchestrations, yet he wrote his own piano reduction which put the burden of proof into Uyeda’s hands; as an orchestra of one she revived the 17-minute piece with a shrewd sense of the original. Between her and Jordan, the performance captured the almost heartbreaking innocence of Agee’s words, and the mostly-lulling sweetness of Barber’s music. But there are sharp jabs around that innocence, and a harrowing picture of an electrified streetcar, “the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit.”

In music sung in the high soprano register, the words become almost illegible to the ear. Wisely, the program booklet contained them. Indeed, all the vocal works came with the printed words, except Henry Cowell’s Toccanta, a ten-minute ‘suite’ that required Jordan to sing open vowels without words, another big challenge for the singer, handled with apparent ease. The piece itself, three movements and two interludes, was a fine reminder of Cowell’s originality and uniqueness; he was a major influence on subsequent generations of American composers, not least Aptos’ own Lou Harrison. The work called on all participants.

The theme for the concert was “American Voices” and included the 12-minute Suite No. 1 in four movements for solo cello by Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch. Bloch plainly had the Bach cello suites in mind, especially in the dancing final allegro. The lovely Canzona used plentiful portamento and double stops. I wasn’t the only string player in the audience who appreciated the difficulty the piece throws at its executants, in this case obviously Garbeff.

Composer Chris Pratorius Gómez was in attendance to hear his own A Dream Within a Dream, for which Purcell played alto flute as well as piccolo. The text is a sea-themed poem by Edgar Allan Poe, originally performed in Santa Cruz in 2011 by Jordan and Pratorius Gómez. The newly revised version called on the entire ensemble and included the recorded sound of waves crashing and seagulls crying. It’s a fine piece and it got an excellent performance. 

Composer Daniel Brown gave spoken remarks before the premiere of his setting of Tony Hoagland’s poem Personal, which is really a protest, indeed an angry one. It contains such lines as “Don’t take it personal, they said: but I did. I took it all quite personal”; “I don’t believe in the clean break. I believe in the compound fracture served with a sauce of dirty regret”; “I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard; barking and barking. trying to convince everything else to take it personal too.” Brown completed his setting of it early this year and explained that he invited Hoagland to attend the premiere but was dismayed to discover the poet was in last-stage pancreatic cancer. Brown and Jordan went into rehearsals immediately determined to record the work for Hoagland to hear, but they were too late; Hoagland died just three weeks ago. Jordan, Uyeda and Purcell made it very ‘personal.’

This unique and compelling concert concluded with Afro-American Suite by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), the granddaughter of slaves who became an outstanding musician and composer. Scored for flutes, cello and piano, it sets four instantly recognizable spirituals, “Brothers will you pray for me”; “I heard the preaching of the elder”; “Who is that yonder?” and “Shout all over God’s heaven.” This was so deftly and economically arranged that the force of the originals blazed right through. Or as Jordan wrote in her program note, “it hums and sings with the voice of spirit.”  

Jordan book-ended the program by encoring Barber/Agee’s miraculous “Sure on this shining night” as arranged by a UCSC graduate student. With what treasures we live! 

Youth Music Monterey ‘Eclectic Delight’

By Scott MacClelland

TO CELEBRATE THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY of Youth Music Monterey’s founding, conductor Farkhad Khudyev delivered another YMM miracle. It ‘transcended’ on Sunday afternoon at Sunset Center in a program dubbed Eclectic Delight. YMM’s newly constituted Junior Youth Orchestra took the first half—each new school year student musicians move up to the senior Honors Orchestra with young talent freshening the junior ensemble—while the Honors Orchestra on this occasion gave the world premiere of a 25-minute concerto for traditional Azeri instruments, including their virtuoso soloists, and symphonic orchestra.

Khudyev spoke in detail ahead of the concerto, completed early this year by composer/pianist Abuzar Manafzade (born 1990), and not least rightly credited the YMM administrative team for putting together a highly complex effort to make this premiere possible. Representatives from the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles were on hand among the sell-out audience.   

The Junior Youth Orchestra began the concert playing original editions of the Hungarian March from Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, the first movement of a cello concerto composed in 1760 by John Garth (1721-1810), berceuse and finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird and Slavonic Dance in A-flat by Dvořák. Soloist in the Garth was 12-year-old Hong Kong-born Katrina Yang Bauer who played with remarkable confidence for a musician cast into the spotlight at such a young age. For the Stravinsky, Khudyev showed why his professional opportunities are rapidly expanding; he shushed the strings down to a gripping pianississimo at the end of the berceuse. Few professional orchestra conductors demonstrate such faith in their instincts and, more important, their musicians. (Harpist Tara Ragsdale-Cronin’s name was left out of the printed program; she made important contributions to both the Junior Youth and Honors Orchestra’s halves of the program.)

The Honors Orchestra began its half of the concert with Jubilee from Symphonic Sketches by George Whitefield Chadwick, an early 20th century master composer of the generation before Charles Ives. Chadwick was a first-rate musician. I hope Khudyev will revisit his Symphonic Sketches again in future YMM programs.    

A 1990 Russian postage stamp honoring folk instruments of Azerbaijan.

 

 

Manafzade’s concerto featured the young balaban virtuoso Nijat Masimov and naghara master Natig Shirinov, with the composer at the piano. The balaban is an ancient, soft-spoken wooden flute that uses a double reed, like an oboe. And like an oboe, in Azeri (and other Caucasus nations) it invites the technique of circular breathing—air pressure applied from the cheeks at the same time the nose draws fresh air into the lungs—allowing for seemingly endless melodies. Its tone is quite mellow, lacking any sharp edges, but extremely expressive and improvisational in the folk style. (Here it was amplified given a full orchestra powering up from behind.) In Shirinov’s case, he played on three different hand drums, plus two more played with sticks. His brilliant virtuoso improvisation at the end of the first of the concerto’s two movements ignited a spontaneous eruption of audience cheers and applause, until Farkhad signaled by hand that there was another movement to go. At the piano, Manafzade played a passage that was muted, probably by a strip of leather on the strings that imitated an Azeri lute.

The piece itself alternated between haunting romantic melodies of late 19th century character and vigorous dance passages in 3/4 and 4/4 (or maybe 2/4) time. The orchestral music was plainly tonal while the folk instruments were released into traditional minor scales. Overall, the concerto made a vivid impression thanks to the composer’s skill at exploiting the full range of colors among the winds and brass. To enormous acclaim by the audience, the three solo artists served up an improvised encore, once again widely cheered. A great fumble of bouquets, for the artists but quickly handed off to the orchestra musicians, specially the ladies, had everyone laughing. I suspect the composer will want to make some revisions to his composed score, but for the audience it was a clear winner.

Earlier in the week, on Wednesday, the three solo artists performed a program at Hidden Valley called Ancient Fire. While I didn’t attend it, I did understand the title. In and around Baku natural gas leaks to the surface and burns constantly. In a recent travel feature from CNN Travel, I found this fascinating description:

“This fire has burned 4,000 years and never stopped,” says Aliyeva Rahila. “Even the rain coming here, snow, wind — it never stops burning.” Tall flames dance restlessly across a 10-meter stretch of hillside, making a hot day even hotter. This is Yanar Dag—meaning ‘burning mountainside’–on Azerbaijan’s  Absheron Peninsula, where Rahila works as a tour guide. A side effect of the country’s plentiful natural gas reserves, which sometimes leak to the surface, Yanar Dag is one of several spontaneously occurring fires to have fascinated and frightened travelers to Azerbaijan over the millennia. Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote of the mysterious phenomena when he passed through the country in the 13th century. Other Silk Road merchants brought news of the flames as they would travel to other lands. It’s why the country earned the moniker the ‘land of fire.’”

Photo: Nijat Masimov, balaban, with conductor Farkhad Khudyev, by Ian Martin, Youth Music Monterey