By Monica Mendoza
WHEN YOU ENTER A CHURCH that houses an organ you are quite literally walking into a musical instrument. The interior of the church is like the inside of a violin or a cello, a space for the sound to resonate. The organ is an instrument that makes you feel small, which makes it a fitting instrument for ecclesiastical usage, to turn one’s mind to higher things.
Tiffany Bedner, the featured organist of the evening at Carmel Mission Basilica last Friday, opened the concert with JS Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Fugue comes from the Latin “to fly away” and Bach’s most famous organ work does just that. There are so many voices and ideas going on at once, flying in and out of the texture in a mad rush, yet the beauty of the baroque fugue is that no matter how different from each other the parts get they always weave together in a harmonious way. Bedner’s playing was precise, with just the right amount of weight given to each voice in the fugue. While only the start of the concert, it was already a stirring evening.
After Bedner’s fugue, in which the Monterey Peninsula College String Ensemble performed only in the background, the next piece was just for the strings. Arranged by Matthew Naughtin, the Simple Gifts Fugue was a short, but ambitious work; a re-imagining of the famous tune in the style of a baroque fugue. The rustic melody became very solemn, with interesting transitions into minor keys, and a powerful basso continuo line. I found myself frequently paying attention to the bass line, as this piece was dedicated to the late double bassist Don Roseff. An active musician in the Monterey Peninsula area, Roseff passed away unexpectedly on February 10th of this year.
After the pair of fugues, the string ensemble was joined by the Carmel Mission Choir who performed several considerably lighter pieces. The first was Offertory by John Ness Beck, followed by three pieces by Dan Forrest, all settings of somewhat religious texts. These pieces have lovely string parts that compliment the voices as well as the text. In the majestic Benedictus, the snare drum adds just the right touch, a sense of regality fitting for the text. There was also excellent balance between the individual sections of the choir, despite the imbalance between the number of people in each section. The female sections were fuller than the men’s but all parts could be heard equally well.
Tiffany Bedner returned to the organ for Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. A witty French composer, Poulenc has a distinctively mischievous way with notes. In this concerto he uses a lot of tension and release in the form of interplay between major and minor. Especially towards the end this interplay became quite frantic, and the drama high. Quite different from his other works, the Organ Concerto was written at a time of crossroads in his life while he was mourning a deceased friend and at the same time rediscovering his Roman Catholic faith. The stress in his personal life certainly left an impression on his writing, which is some of his most solemn. In this case, the writing is demanding, not just for the organ, but also for the strings. Bedner put a lot of character into her playing, and presented a concerto that sets the organ free from the stereotypes it is often boxed into. Instead of being the “Halloween instrument”or the “church instrument,” it was simply the organ; an instrument with much versatility.
At the end of the evening, the conductor of the Carmel Mission singers, soprano Laura Anderson, sang five operatic arias. Four of them were by Puccini, the odd one out was Desdemona’s famous Ave Maria from Otello by Verdi. Anderson had a wide range of characters to bring to life convincingly. In “Vissi d’arte,” “O mio babbino caro” and “Un bel di” (from Tosca, Gianni Schicchi and Madama Butterfly respectively), and despite the very different women portrayed, Anderson made the switch effortlessly. The other Puccini aria further showcased Anderson’s refined soprano, which filled the Basilica’s resonant space, yet included one striking imbalance: at the end of Liu’s aria from Turandot, “Tu che di gel sei cinta” (“You who are enclosed by ice”), the massive timpani crashes overpowered the voice. This is a dramatic moment, at which the character singing the aria to her cruel mistress commits suicide rather than betray the man she loves. Despite being interrupted like that, Anderson gave a compelling performance, in terms of both acting and singing.
Though it was quite an ambitious program, the MPC String Ensemble made performing such repertoire look easy, and there were only a few very small audible missteps in the two hour program. Quite an accomplishment, it will be exciting to see what the group does in the coming school year.