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.   

Music in May

LinBy Roger Emanuels

CELEBRATING ITS 11th concert season on May 26 and 27, Music in May has again proven to be a major springtime event in Santa Cruz County. Two superb chamber music programs featured guest violinist Cho-Liang Lin (pictured) with a large roster of 17 distinguished musicians from around the United States. Known in California as music director of La Jolla SummerFest, Lin has performed as soloist internationally, has an extensive list of recordings and is a dedicated educator.

Samper Recital Hall in Aptos provided a wonderful setting for the Music in May concerts. Relocating here is a welcome upgrade to the performance space.

The Saturday concert was dedicated to music of the 19th century. Pianist Anna Polonsky set the mood with Robert Schumann’s Arabesque, a decorative floral expression that emphasized Polonsky’s sensitivity to musical story-telling. The variety of colors in her playing easily engages the listener.

The Quintet for Strings in C Major, Op. 29 by Beethoven began with a warm glow, the well-blended sound assuring a clean and confident performance. This is the composer’s only composition for two violins, two violas and cello. The addition of a second viola gives a noticeably different character to the sound, creating more weight to the lower string range. The performance sparkled with typical Beethoven touches of sudden dynamic and mood changes. The ensemble had only days to prepare though they sounded as if they had been playing together for some time. Violinist Lin was joined by violinist Liang-Ping How, violists Alexandra Leem and Jaime Amador and cellist Danielle Cho.

The cheerfulness of Beethoven’s C Major Quintet balanced well with the darkly dramatic Quartet No. 3 for Piano and Strings in C Minor, Op. 60 by Brahms. The Andante is a love song for cello, and was played as such by Jonah Kim. His sound has a projection even in the quietist moments. Kim and Cho-Liang Lin were joined by Daniel Stewart, viola, and Anna Polonsky, piano. As in the Beethoven, this performance demonstrated excellent balance and ensemble.

The second concert, on Sunday, had a Russian theme with music by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, and the premiere of a newly commissioned work for solo violin by Polina Nazaykinskaya, who was born in Russia in 1987 and now lives in the US. This is her second commission from Music in May, having produced a chamber work in 2012.

Her new work, Hope, is for solo violin and is dedicated to the memory of violinist David Arben, a mentor and advisor of Music in May founder Rebecca Jackson. Rebecca is preparing a biography of Arben, a Polish holocaust survivor who had a successful career in America, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 34 years, much of that time as associate concertmaster.

Rebecca gave a solid and engaging reading of this “dramatic, virtuosic fantasia for solo violin,” as it was described in the program notes. Nazaykinskaya has a solid background in violin performance. She knows how the instrument works and what it can offer expressively. She is not searching for new or unconventional ways to produce sound on the violin. Much of the work requires playing two notes simultaneously, creating a forward moving harmony. Another technique to create harmony is the rapid rolling of the bow across the strings, a device from the 18th century Italian violin composers. Nazaykinskaya’s harmonies are not traditional, but they retain the same elements of tension and release.

The Quintet for Piano and Strings by Dmitri Shostakovich was premiered by the composer in 1940 in Moscow. Containing five movements, the addition of a second slow movement is a break from the four-movement tradition. This solid performance provided an opportunity to hear the rich sound of violist Jaime Amador and expressive playing of cellist Kim. Violinists Liang-Ping How and Rebecca Jackson with pianist Anna Polonsky completed the ensemble. Sparks were flying in the Scherzo movement.

The highlight and grand finale of Music in May 2018 was the Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. Without conductor, the fifteen musicians were led by guest artist Lin, filling the hall with a resonance that only 15 perfectly tuned and coordinated participants can make. The opening chords were played with warm, integrated sound, impeccable ensemble and intonation that characterized the level of performance throughout. Tchaikovsky claimed influence from the serenades of Mozart which is difficult to find in this piece. But in the comfortable Waltz movement, the charming inner voice activity is a typical Mozart technique. The third movement Elegy opened with a dark sound that gave way to haunting melodies and a tinge of nostalgia. The Finale, with its Russian folk theme brought the work to a satisfying conclusion with rhythmic vitality.

Musicians in the earlier performances on these programs were joined by Hee-Guen Song, Nigel Armstrong, Heather Powell, Minsun Choi, Mayumi Wyrick and Rebecca Racusin, violins, Tiffany Richardson, viola and Sayuri Yamamoto, bass.

An important component of Music in May is the outreach accomplished through Sound Impact, a collective formed in 2012 by Rebecca Jackson, Tiffany Richardson and Danielle Cho.

Their mission is to take live music into the community, including schools, hospitals, homeless centers, juvenile detention centers and orphanages throughout the US and Costa Rica. Their remarkable activity can be viewed at www.SoundImpact.org.