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)