I Cantori di Carmel

I Cantori today

By Monica Mendoza

MAY IS ONE of the busiest months for musicians, and the end-of-season concerts are often ambitious in scope. For their final offering of the 2017-18 season, I Cantori di Carmel, led by Tom Lehmkuhl, delivered a delightful tapestry of choral music throughout the centuries. On Saturday at Carmel Mission, the choir sang with a great deal of expression, and even though a wide variety of styles was presented the choir members seemed at home in every one. Performers often have to play or sing in many different styles, and it can be challenging to make the switch, especially during the same program. However, the transitions from sacred to madrigal to folk and finally to American spiritual were all gracefully done.

The program began with the more solemn selections. Works by Haydn, Palestrina and Randall Thompson were performed with great vigor, and filled the whole interior of the mission church. The music of Palestrina was written for skyward church ceilings such as this venue, and it was thrilling to hear this music in its element. Roughly two centuries separate Randall Thompson from Haydn and Haydn from Palestrina, yet his “Alleluia,” sung between works by the two others, fit perfectly. Haydn’s “Insanae et vanae curae” (Frantic and futile anxieties) was about how anxiety can take over one’s heart and steal away all hope, but that trust in God above all else can help relieve such worries. Haydn suffered no shortage of anxieties in his life, so this music probably came straight from the heart. Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” didn’t feature an intricate text, in fact, that one word was the only one throughout the entire piece. Yet it held just as much power as the complex texts of Haydn and Palestrina. The word was sung in so many different ways, from jubilant to sorrowful to majestic, that it was just as powerful.

After the sacred music came a series of madrigals, secular pieces that are usually written for four or five voices, that were very popular during the Renaissance. The three madrigals featured by I Cantori were written in the 20th century, however. Much like Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” written in the style of Haydn, these pieces blend the aesthetic of traditional madrigals with modern harmonic language and sensibilities. Gabriel Fauré’s Madrigal in particular is a blend of innovations. The lyrics are a spat between young men and women, subject matter true to the style of madrigals. The actual music is melancholic with an impressionist texture.

The last half of the concert consisted of jovial music from folk and American spiritual traditions. William Dawson’s “Soon Ah Will Be Done” gave an impressive display of the choir’s dynamic range. At times, they would be so soft it was almost a murmur, yet the energy was still there. The final piece of the concert was a blend of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” called Swinging with the Saints. It was a crowd pleaser for sure, and also gave pianist Pauline Troia an opportunity to show what she can do. She did much more than just accompany the choir and played an active role in the feel of the piece. Troia is retiring at the end of this season, and will certainly be missed. She has been an integral part of helping make the music of this area happen, and this was a lovely send off from I Cantori. I eagerly await what I Cantori does next season, and to see who steps in as the new pianist.

Pianist Jeremy Denk

jeremy-denk-2013-michael-wilson-900x470

By Monica Mendoza

BEING A MUSICIAN, it isn’t enough to just play your pieces well. Technical prowess is important, but to give a truly great performance a lot of thought must go into the effort as well. Pianist Jeremy Denk displayed many great strengths, technical precision being one of them, but it was his thoughtful repertoire choices as well as his interpretations that gave the biggest impression during his solo recital on Sunday in Carmel.

Denk’s program revolved around the theme of recurring fragments of emotion and thought, as he himself explained after he performed the opening piece of his program. Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor captures a feeling of recurring grief, or regret. The term “Rondo” often describes a jubilant piece with a catchy repeating theme, though here the mood was persistently dark.

Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives fit cleanly into Denk’s program, the idea of the piece directly reflecting his concept for the concert. It’s a collection of 20 short pieces, each with a distinctive emotional quality. Many of the movements are deliberately ambiguous, like an emotion that you can’t quite put your finger on.

The climax to the first half of the program was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 30 in E Major. Especially in the first movement the idea of fragments is prevalent, with the tempo changing from vivace to adagio within the first 30 seconds. However, the third movement finds peace within itself, and finally Beethoven has found a theme to hang on to.

Denk spoke at length about his choices, which I found very valuable. Even though there was plenty of information in the program book, I always like to hear what the performers are thinking when they play, and it certainly made it a more enjoyable performance thanks to Denk’s comments, especially how much interpretation mattered to him. Many pianists simply pound out an impressive performance and call it a day, so it’s special when a performer thinks carefully about the why. He also put a great deal of body language into his playing, while never being excessive. The various moods of the Prokofiev speak well enough through the music, but the addition of different postures and facial expressions made it really come through, loud and clear.

Schubert’s 45-minute Sonata in B-Flat Major made up the entire second half of the concert. Schubert lived only to the age of thirty=one, and this sonata was written shortly before his death. Denk explained how it contains the reflections of a man who knew he was living on borrowed time. Indeed, the sonata is a work full of compositional maturity, and contains fragments different in moods and ideas tying into the general theme. One of the most striking things about the piece is that at the beginning there is a dark, low pitched trill in the bass that seems to come out of nowhere. The bright opening theme of the first movement is always paired with this trill, like a thought that one can’t escape from. Denk himself noted that there are dozens of interpretations for what Schubert is trying to say, and I think it is up to the individual listener or performer to decide.

Denk’s performance of the Schubert was met with enthusiastic applause, and two encores. The first was a graceful rendition of the second movement of Mozart’s “simple” Piano Sonata in C Major, K545. The second was a ‘blasphemous’ (as he put it) version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture, which began solemnly, but quickly took on a sardonic character and became a lightning-fast dance with a jazzy edge. It just goes to show, there is room for all spectrums of emotion in music, including biting humor.

Carmel Music Society’s season draws to a close on June 9th with the piano competition. I, for one, eagerly await their next season of music.