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 email@example.com.