By Scott MacClelland
BY WAY OF a rigorous vetting process the Santa Cruz Chamber Players assign an ad hoc Artistic Director to each of its subscription programs. In this case, it was cellist Aude Castagna who, being French, chose an all-French program that turned out to be of exceptional range and variety, from Berlioz (of 1832) to Ravel (of 1926.)
Castagna’s ensemble included flutist Lars Johannesson, soprano Sheila Willey, violinist Shannon Delaney and pianists Susan Bruckner and Michael McGushin. The matinée sold out Christ Lutheran Church in Aptos. Performance standards ranged from excellent to almost excellent. An example of the former, with Johannesson and Bruckner, was Philippe Gaubert’s three-minute Madrigal for flute and piano of 1908 that opened the program.
Only 23 when she wrote it, Cécile Chaminade’s big (25-minute, four-movement) Piano Trio in G Minor, of 1881, undoubtedly a regional premiere, presented the most problematic performance of the afternoon. Pianist McGushin, one of the most versatile and valuable in the area, played the piece heavily, in spite of its Gallic character. The two string players began uneasily before settling into a confident presentation. Both Gabriel Fauré and César Franck inform Chaminade’s music, almost like bookends in this very work. The two slight middle movements were arguably most in character with her style.
The three finest works on the program were the late Cello Sonata (1915) and Violin Sonata (1917) by Debussy and Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses (Madagascar Songs.) The sonatas, with Bruckner at the piano, showed the string players how truly challenging they are, tall orders for anyone and that probably would have benefited from more rehearsing. However, in the face of difficulty—the music is all over the fingerboards with extreme bowings, pizzicatos and harmonics—both players rose to the heights. I think Delaney probably raised her own bar in this reading.
The star of the afternoon was Sheila Willey (left), currently a professor of voice at UCSC and a frequent performer. Her first appearance was in Berlioz’ La Captive, with McGushin and Castagna. She sang with a confidence that was as assured with the music as with the Victor Hugo text, which is richly perfumed with beguiling images—“I am no Tartar that a black eunuch should tune my guitar,” “The green insect that wanders glistens, a living emerald under the blades of green grass.”
Ironically, Hugo (1802-1885) was then and Évariste Parny (1753-1814) was now. Parny’s songs (which he claimed were translations) are in turn erotic, enraged and again erotic. Ravel’s settings are exquisite, miraculous. The angry one, in both text and music, aroused the most controversy at the premiere, when it warns the blacks of Madegascar’s interior to beware of the whites on the coast. “A great menace arose; thunder was enclosed within mouths of iron; their priests wished to give us a God we did not know, they spoke at last of obedience and of enslavement. Better death!”
Willey was irresistible in these pieces, a true artist. Bruckner, Johannessson and Castagna gave her the needed support and the audience rewarded the effort on its feet.