By Roger Emanuels
IT WAS A STROKE of brilliant programming on the part of Artistic Director and violinist Rebecca Jackson. There was no piano in either of Music in May’s two concerts on May 20 and 21. Chamber music suffers when performed with piano at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz, where instruments are often covered by the full sound of the piano. But here, the resonant acoustics of the church worked wonders with various combinations of strings, harp and flute. The Friday program contained intimate works for solo harp, duos of different instruments and a trio. The Saturday program presented larger ensembles, concluding with the monumental Octet for Strings by Mendelssohn.
This was season nine of Music in May, which each year presents two evenings of chamber music performed by musicians from the San Francisco Bay Area and guest artists. In addition, the musicians perform free concerts for county youth in schools and also at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. Guest artists this season were violinist Chee-Yun Kim—who goes by her given name—harpist Bridget Kibbey, and cellist Johah Kim. The three had major solo responsibilities on the program, as did Rebecca Jackson.
Harpist Kibbey, based in New York, has an active international career as soloist. Many works have been written for her, including a concerto by Vivian Fung that she premiered with the San Jose Chamber Orchestra recently. Kibbey opened the Friday concert with two very attractive pieces composed for her. The first, by Paquito D’Rivera and titled Bandoneón, is colorful and innovative with slight touches of jazz harmonies and Cuban rhythms, but mostly just makes good use of the resonant harp sound. David Bruce’s Caja de Música (Music Box) was played in two parts. In the first, traditional joropo rhythms evoke the prairie of Venezuela where the sound of the folk harp is heard. Following remarks by Kibbey, the second part explored the expressive qualities of the instrument.
The modern harp was patented in France in 1810, and composers in French-speaking countries often wrote for the instrument in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The repertoire for harp in chamber ensemble has come from notable composers such as Debussy and Ravel. The Belgian Joseph Jongen composed his Two Pieces for flute, harp and cello in Paris in 1925. At first impressionistic with colorful, diaphanous textures, the work becomes quite virtuosic with demanding passagework. Flutist Ray Furuta and cellist Jonah Kim joined Kibbey. Their performance received the first of many standing ovations in these concerts.
The Fantasie for violin and harp by Saint-Saëns paired Kibbey with Chee-Yun. The 1907 work demands much from both players but puts the spotlight on the violin throughout with great technical demands. After building up to virtuoso climaxes, Chee-Yun calmed listeners with an extended closing section of exquisite sound. A second standing ovation erupted, and this was only the intermission!
The Friday concert closed with duos for violin and cello, one a U.S. premiere and the other a masterpiece in the duo literature. The premiere was Yesterday is No More by Polina Nazaykinskaya, composed for Rebecca Jackson and cellist Ani Kalayjian, who premiered the piece in Lebanon less than a year ago. Here, Jackson played it with Jonah Kim. The composer’s musical language is vaguely familiar, with veiled tonal implications, projecting otherwise refreshingly new and colorful sounds. The audience enjoyed the piece with a standing ovation.
Chee-Yun joined cellist Jonah Kim in the three-movement duo by Zoltan Kodaly from 1914, a work imbued with lively Hungarian rhythms. Early on in the first movement it was a pleasure to hear such an impeccable match of sound from two players. Every nuance was played the same way, with matching vibrato and precise intonation. For this listener it was a definitive performance. Another standing ovation.
In contrast to the intimate chamber program on Friday, the second concert on Saturday night featured the full roster of musicians in larger settings. To set the mood of more grandiose works, Bridget Kibbey opened the concert with her transcription for solo harp of J.S. Bach’s grand Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, recreating the thrilling organ scales and arpeggios many people know in the Stokowski version for symphony orchestra.
The Concerto for two violins by Bach featured soloists Chee-Yun and Jackson with string quartet accompaniment. Often performed with symphony orchestra, this chamber version was completely satisfying by the warm sound and rhythmic vitality of the soloists and ensemble. A second work often heard in larger, orchestral settings is the Sacred and Profane Dances by Debussy, for harp and strings. A sextet of strings accompanied the impressionistic harp solo by Kibbey in this representation of the heavenly and the earthly as the sacred and profane of the title. As in the Bach Concerto, this chamber version of Debussy’s was perfectly balanced between soloist and accompaniment.
The Octet for Strings by Mendelssohn was the final work on this second program, featuring the full complement of string players. In addition to those mentioned in earlier paragraphs appeared Moni Simeonov and Emma Noel Votapek, violins; Alexandra Leem and Tiffany Richardson, violas; and Frederic Rosselet, cello. Composed at age 16, when Mendelssohn already was a master of writing for string instruments, the work has become a monument of 19th century chamber music. With eight separate parts the octet is chamber music with symphonic proportions. This performance was so electric that the audience jumped again to their feet at the end of the first movement. The Scherzo movement glimmered with fairy spirits, which connected without a breath to the fugal Presto finale, which took away the listeners’ breath in its speed and accuracy.
In sum, the impression of this listener is that Music in May has had a very successful ninth season. Rebecca Jackson has created the opportunity for audiences to hear superb performances of great music of the highest artistic level. All the standing ovations were absurd, but they certainly affirmed the communicative power of each piece and the caliber of play.
Photo by Scot Goodman