Tag Archives: Sullivan

A Welcome Addition to the Maine Music Scene

Amethyst Chamber Ensemble
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Apr. 15, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

A new star has risen on the Maine (and Massachusetts) musical horizon. On Sunday, the Amethyst Chamber Ensemble, in its first Maine performance, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, transformed what could have been a lugubrious afternoon—sort of a “Songs and Dances of Death”—into a lively celebration of life.

The concert began with a set of three songs, “Let Evening Come,” by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) The songs are masterful settings of poems by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Jane Kenyon, dealing with human reactions to death.

Bolcom is a master at portraying psychological states through music, and the last song, to a poem by Kenyon, turns a funeral march into a triumphant procession. The set was effectively performed by Mary Sullivan, soprano, Scott Nicholas, piano, and Jon Poupore, viola. The latter instrument takes the place of a singer, who died before Bolcom could complete a commission written for two sopranos.

I loved Emily Dickinson’s image of birds in winter accepting the penance of the farmer.

The next selection on the program, the great Brahms Viola Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, was more cheerful, with echoes of his “Liebeslieder Waltzes” coming after more introspective sections, including some surprisingly songful double stops on the viola.

For something entirely different, the trio, with the addition of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris, performed 13 of “Fifteen Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano,” by Irving Schlein (1905-1986). Schlein, a familiar figure on Broadway, composed a large number of classical works, which have remained virtually undiscovered.

The songs are short, well-written, and often comical– musical one-liners, such as No. 5, which, while praising bird song, ends in a discordant minor second. The next, extoling harmony, takes the tonic to ridiculous extremes. No. 13, however, harks back to the theme of the concert, recalling the despair of unrequited love.

German weltschmerz was on full display in two wonderful, darkly Romantic songs for Voice and Viola (Op. 91) by Brahms: “Stilled Longing” and “You Who Hover “(“Gestillte Sehnsucht” and “Geistliches Wiegenlied”). They were movingly sung by Morris with just the right degree of restrained emotion, and tones complementing those of the viola.

Three tangos by Astor Piazzolla provided just the right combination of darkness and light, all of them, however a little more melodic than most of that composer’s concert tangos. The first, a Milonga, was sung by Morris, the second “El Titere,” about a Mack the Knife-like character, by Sullivan,and the third, “Song of the Zamba Girl,” by both, as alternating solos and a duet.

Sullivan and Morris form a near-perfect duet, as significant differences in pitch and timbre make the combination of voices most effective. Their coordination was most striking in a programmed encore, a vocalization of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 by his friend Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) entitled “Les Bohemiennes.”

I usually cannot understand sung words in English, so Viardot’s French was beyond me. I’ll take it on faith that it was clever, funny and perhaps a bit risqué, judging by the fun that the singers, and the audience, had with it.

The next concert in Maine is scheduled for November. Too far off.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.
.

Oratorio Chorale Ends Season with Amazing Grace

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
May 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Amazing Grace” is a simple pentatonic tune (it can be played on just the black keys of a piano), which has become a cliche at public funerals, but Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale, in Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, turned it into something magical, with drones, fugues of intermixed stanzas and more musical devices than you can shake a baton at.  It wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, but it sounded marvelous nonetheless.

Spirituals were at the heart of the program, presented in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, which will be offering an Emancipation Celebration at St. Paul’s on June 10.

Isaacson programmed a varied selection of these works in roughly chronological order, from the darkest days of slavery through emancipation to the 20th Century. The Chorale was ably assisted by Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Judith Casselberry, reader and Scott Wheatley, piano.

Casselberry’s readings, beginning with Frederick Douglass, were valuable in establishing context and significance, but sometimes difficult to understand. It would have been helpful to include them in the program.

Mary Sullivan’s solo in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” with the chorale emulating a desolate wind, reminded me of Marian Anderson. She was equally effective in livelier spirituals.

Stealing the show, however, was countertenor Reginald Mobley. Countertenors are often featured in Baroque and earlier music, but using one as a soloist in spirituals is rather unusual. As usual with Isaacson’s innovative ideas, this one worked perfectly.

Mobley , although he sounded a little unsure of himself at first, soon came into his own, with marvelous renditions of “Were You There?” and “Steal Away.”  Toward the end, his “Precious Lord” was a prime example of what Gospel shout should be, full of perfectly timed musical ornaments, delivered in a powerful mezzo-soprano voice. with infectuous enthusiasm.

My favorite among the well-known songs by the chorale alone was a fast-paced, perfectly rendered version of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel.”

If I had any quarrel at all with the concert, it would be with its very variety. The Gospel songs are good enough on their own without shifting choirs around, marching, alternating piano accompaniment with a cappella, and using (a few) gussied-up arrangements.

That said., it was a very satisfying coda to the Chorale’s outstanding 2016-2017 season.

(For more on the subject matter of this concert, see “Negro Spirituals” on this site.)

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.