SCCP “Ornithology”


By Scott MacClelland

WITH CHRIS PRATORIUS-GÓMEZ as concert director for a Santa Cruz Chamber Players program, you can expect some new music composed for the occasion by this talented, witty musician. In the iteration heard Sunday afternoon in Aptos Pratorius served up two new pieces, one that flew—the concert overall title was “Ornithology…an aviary”—and one that drew the short straw.

The one that flew, Fantasy on Bird’s Ornithology, an arrangement for alto flute, bass clarinet, viola and piano of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s Ornithology, added some of Pratorius’ original music as a bridge and a track of birdsongs he recorded all around Santa Cruz County. The ten short minutes required to perform it were packed with brilliant invention. The alto/tenor range of viola (Polly Malan), flute (Lars Johannesson) and tenor/baritone clarinet (Leslie Tagorda) glowed prominently in registers usually consigned to “inner voices” of instrumental textures. They, and Pratorius at the piano, savored Parker’s original and reminded the full-house audience just how potent was the then new be-bop style. In his spoken remarks Pratorius apologized to his musicians since, as he explained, the star of the show was a mockingbird’s tour de force performance he recorded downtown at 2 in the morning.

The program opened with Six Studies in English Folk Song in the haunting edition for B-flat clarinet and piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here, Tagorda (pictured above) was joined by pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi. They were then teamed with violist Malan for a quirky Nocturne by Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958), an English composer obsessed with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, in this case “Fairyland.” Pratorius’ written note described the piece as programmatic, yet tracing the musical lines and harmonies with the poem, which was printed in the program handout, soon became more frustrating than illuminating. Holbrooke nevertheless stakes his own distinctive claim as a ‘modern’ composer of his time.

The first half of the concert concluded with the twelve Ariose Singers and their conductor Camille Couture in Le chant des oiseaux, by the Renaissance chanson composer Clément Janequin (1485-1558) who enjoyed great popularity as this highly amusing setting—complete with imitation bird calls—attested.

Following intermission, violinist Roy Malan with pianist Nakagoshi played The Lark Ascending, that pastoral, improvisational masterpiece from World War I that was inspired by a George Meredith poem. Malan captured its resigned autumnal character which many a younger violinist would not likely yet recognize. Johannesson then served up Syrinx, that short but altogether memorable solo by Debussy.

The Ariose Singers concluded with program with nine of Pratorius’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, a performance that fell short of what it will become when it gets revived at, I’m guessing, the composer’s next SC Chamber Players concert. Yet another poem, the Haiku-like verses of Wallace Stevens, provided inspiration. The premiere was truncated after the piece proved to be too difficult within the time to prepare it, and even then was under duress. But it did reveal its qualities in sketch form, as the chorus sang its primary lines and provided accompaniment at the same time. Pratorius recited Stevens’ terse verses one by one and supported the singers with his part at the piano.

Except for the disappointing finale, this concert was as excellent in variety as in execution.