Songs and Dances

By Dana Abbott

ENSEMBLE MONTEREY‘s concert, “Songs and Dances,” at St Philips Lutheran Church in Carmel Valley was sold out. It seems this group has earned a devoted following.

The evening opened with Claude Debussy’s Dances Sacred and Profane for harp and strings. Commissioned in 1904 by Pleyel, the French instrument firm, to promote its new double-strung harp, Debussy produced a single movement piece which starts out with a unison modal melody and moves along with bell-like sonorities to a more energetic waltz with some Spanish inflection for the finish.  The soloist was Jennifer Cass, a professor of math at Cabrillo College. The piece was a delight and started the concert on an elevated plane. By the way, Pleyel was not successful in promoting its complex new harp, but the work can be and was played on the modern, single-strung instrument.

The concert’s second piece was La revue de cuisine, by Bohuslav Martinů. In four movements–Prologue, Tango, Charleston and Final–it was a surprising crowd pleaser. Martinů had written a one-act ballet with dancing kitchen utensils (!) for performance in Prague in 1927. Scored for piano, violin, trumpet, cello, bassoon and clarinet, he extracted the suite of four movements in 1930. (The full ballet score was not published until 1990, after Martinů’s passing.) The Prologue features a prominent trumpet solo, the Charleston was an infectious toe-tapper and the Final jazzy with delightful accents and syncopations.   

Alberto Ginastera’s Cantos del Tucumán, 1938, was sung ably by soprano Diane Syrcle, supported by violin, flute, harp, and percussion. An early work, Ginastera provided approachable musical support for the words of Rafael Jijena Sanchez.  The writing was less lushly inventive than the Martinů, with Ginastera bringing mainly color, simple tunes and support for a straightforward treatment of this folkloric music from the northern province of Tucumán.

Two talented local string players, styling themselves Duo Appassionato, performed Passacaglia by Handel as arranged by Johan Halvorsen. This theme and variations display piece was taken at brisk tempo by violinist Nathan Nguyen and violist Daisy Swanson. The performers are high school students and their work was simply stunning. 

The major work on the concert was Songs of a Wayfarer with words and music by the young Gustav Mahler, in an arrangement for strings, harmonium, flute, clarinet, piano and glockenspiel by Arnold Schoenberg. Written in 1886, Mahler laments over the collapse of a romantic infatuation. The finished piece consists of 4 songs with strings, clarinet and bassoon. Thomas Lehmkuhl (pictured) sang with commanding sonority and abundant beauty of tone. If his control of German pronunciation wavered at the end, it was hardly noticed. The first song, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my sweetheart gets married) features a musical figure Mahler reused and expanded in his fine First Symphony around the same time.

The concert closed with another Arnold Schoenberg transcription, a setting of Johann Strauss’s well known Roses from the South waltz. It starts out with the harmonium, a bit thin, but soon the profusion of melody, entrancing waltz rhythm and the lush playing by the ensemble, captured in Schoenberg’s affectionate setting, had many in the room swaying in sync with the meter. 

The sophisticated charm of the Martinů, the commanding performance and inspiration of the Wayfarer Songs and the lush allure of Roses from the South carried all before them. Debussy, Ginastera and Halvorsen/Handel provided tasty side dishes for an evening of rewarding music, impeccably presented.