Elaine Douvas oboe recital

By Monica Mendoza

HIDDEN VALLEY Music Seminars lies deep in California wine country, so it seems appropriate to me to describe oboist Elaine Douvas’ playing the way one would describe fine wine. Her sound filled the room and had a warm, oaken quality. Throughout music history, the oboe has been entrusted with many now-famous solo lines. However, Douvas’ recital at Hidden Valley on Monday was like looking at the oboe through a magnifying glass.

The first work on the program was Oboe Concerto in B-flat by George Frederic Handel. Though the program indicates that it was written in 1740, Douvas explained that it is more likely that he wrote it earlier in his life, around the age of 34. Though it only clocks in at a mere seven minutes, this piece showcases many of the essential skills that make a great oboist. Her breaths were taken in strategic places, and were so quick and efficient that they were nearly invisible. I didn’t notice any breaths until late in the piece when I realized I should try listening for them, which is a testament to Douvas’ extraordinary breathing technique. Another skill displayed was her ability to vary her dynamics greatly. In the second movement, the oboe enters on a middle F, which sounded so softly that it almost seemed to have no beginning at all.

After Douvas presented the Handel Concerto, a guest artist named Liam Boisset came onstage to perform an adaptation of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 5, “Spring”. This sonata is prominent in violin repertoire, so I was quite curious to hear what it would sound like on the oboe. The feel of a piece is often different when it is arranged for another instrument, and while it was indeed different, Boisset played it as if it was written for the oboe. He hit high notes effortlessly and his breaths were placed strategically. It makes sense that Boisset displayed the same strengths as Douvas; the program explained that he spent time studying under her.

Lasting a little longer than twenty minutes, the “Spring” Sonata is a taxing piece to perform, especially on the oboe, which takes much control and energy, and Boisset sustained both until the very end. Something special that added to the performance was that for the “Spring” Sonata the barn doors of the Hidden Valley recital hall were opened, flooding the audience and performers in the last light of the day.

After a short intermission, Douvas returned for Drei Romanzen by Robert Schumann. These three short romances were written for Schumann’s wife, Clara. He wore his love for Clara on his sleeve, and he wrote some of his most enduring vocal pieces for her as well, like a wedding present. Though not as technically challenging as the Handel or Beethoven, Drei Romanzen shows the tender aspect of the oboe that has enchanted composers throughout the musical eras. These pieces also required much communication between the oboe and the piano, and the accompanist Zsolt Balogh (who gives his name as “Joel” at Starbucks, as we were told in an interlude between pieces) did a tremendous job both here and throughout the concert.

The final piece of the evening was a double concerto. Originally composed for oboe and violin, both Douvas and Boisset performed JS Bach’s Concerto in C minor. Douvas performed the original oboe part while Boisset tackled the violin part. I noticed that the oboe part has more lyricism, while the violin does a lot of very quick runs and arpeggios.

The duo performed with a lot of energy in the outer Allegro movements, displaying much technical facility. The Adagio movement sounded almost like an operatic duet, and the two oboes blended their sound so well that it sounded like one oboe was somehow playing both lines. It was one of the finest moments of the concert. In the end, the audience was brought to their feet and gave a well-deserved ovation.

Hidden Valley’s 2018 Masters Festival will continue with Judith LeClair (bassoon) and Robert Walters (English horn) on June 25th.


Hartnell Community Choir

By Scott MacClelland

MY FIRST TIME hearing Robin McKee Williams’ Hartnell Community Choir—once college-affiliated, now independent—presented me with some seriously accomplished operatic voices, a fine composer I’d never heard of, a new string quintet called Gabrielle Ensemble and an acoustical paradox that I could not make sense of. 

The event was the choir’s spring concert, Sunday afternoon at Carmel’s Church of the Wayfarer. I got there half an hour early and took a seat in the last pew in the back of the sanctuary. If I could figure how to get farther back I would have; the choir was rehearsing Dark Night of the Soul, a setting by Norwegian composer new to me, Ola Gjeilo, of an ecstatic poem by 16th century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, St John of the Cross. The 16-voice choir was so loud in the church’s extremely lively acoustics that I felt riveted to the back of my seat.

How can that be? As Williams’ concert unfolded it became obvious how much effort, planning and imagination, not to mention talent, went into it. And though I don’t know her personally I do know she comes from a musically sophisticated family. More on the paradox below.

The program opened with a song and some opera arias sung by members of the choir with considerable European credentials and, regionally, important roles at Opera San Jose. The most impressive of them were mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen (Habanera from Carmen), baritone Kiril Havezov (Gabriel Faure’s chanson setting of “En sourdine,” a poem by Paul Verlaine), and baritone Krassen Karagiozov (“Nemico della patria” from Umberto Giordano’s romantic French Revolution opera Andrea Chenier). The pianist was Marina Thomas.     

Then the Gabrielle Ensemble, led by Eldar Hudiev, joined pianist George Peterson to support soprano Jody Lee for Song of the Angel, sung on the single word alleluia, by the English contemporary composer John Tavener. Another Alleluia, with variations, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, used three cellos, two played by student musicians, and a flute. It took three minutes while the piece just ahead of it, Kim Arnesen’s Even When He is Silent of 2011, lasted four. Arnesen, another Norwegian, tenderly set to music words found at a concentration camp after World War 2. “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when He is silent.”

For Gjeilo’s Evening Prayer, to words by St Augustine, the choir was joined by tenor saxophonist Stu Reynolds and pianist Peterson. In triple meter it offered a consoling mood. 

The two major works, Gjeilo’s 13-minute Dark Night and the program’s concluding 25-minute Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen are both set in homophonic texture. There are at least two ways to understand what that means; one of them is to explain the etymology of the word. The other is that one voice is primary while the others group together in a subordinate role, underpinning a chord progression. Yet in this case the different voice parts of the Hartnell choir were competing with one another for dominance, effectively obfuscating the chord progression, at times quite beyond recognition. It was as if the choir members could not hear each other.

That brings up another point: the choir was doing all the work instead of letting the acoustics of the room carry its share. In other words, the choir was singing forte in these two works most of the time when singing piano, or even pianissimo, would have easily filled the room, and, more important, given the performances the dynamic contrasts that allows works like these to achieve their most memorable impact.