Norfolk Chamber Consort's Northern Stars: Grieg, Nielsen & Sibelius
Currently on the voice faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music, soprano Emily Stauch was a long time resident of Tidewater and has given many recitals of French and German art song here. This evening's repertoire harks back to her youth when she was an exchange student in Stockholm with a natural love of languages and facility for them. This program included songs sung in German, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.
In a private correspondence while traveling in Europe (August 14, 2014) she wrote “I am doing some research, and looking into new Scandinavian music which I will bring home and incorporate in my teaching and performing.” Though we are looking forward to hearing the modern songs from Germany and Scandinavia in the future, she did sing an engaging set of older romanser (Scandinavian art songs) programmed by Andrey Kasparov. Enter the Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn, NCC artistic co-directors) at the piano and you have an excellent platform for a fine program.
The program opened with three songs from Seks Sange (Six Songs) Op. 48, by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), sung in German with Kasparov at the piano. Gruss (Greeting, on a poem by H. Heine) is a love song patterned as a journey through a garden in spring, followed by Zur Rosenzeit (At the Time of Roses, poem by Goethe), a more serious story of lost love built around a rose still in his garden. The third song was Ein Traum (A Dream, poem by Bodenstadt). It was a light and lovely description of village life in spring where the dream becomes reality and reality becomes a passionate dream.
As with all of the Scandinavian composers, Grieg drew heavily on both a strong folk tradition and the Romantic musical heritage of Europe. He was the first Norwegian to achieve international fame and for years his were the only art songs known outside the region.
The Invencia Piano Duo played Grieg's Norwegian Dances (Four) Op. 35 (1880). A quick march was followed by a cheerful little tune. The third was a perky piano tune that displayed the competitive possibilities of two terrific players seated at a single piano. The last offered a moody opening and a mad gallop at the end.
We turn from the most typical Scandinavian, Grieg, to Carl Nielsen, who “...took comfortable Danish music by the scruff of its neck and shook it hard.” (John H. Yoell, quoted in Song by Carol Kimball). Only Nielsen's early songs deserve to be called art song because his later output was focused on songs that Danish school children could sing. We heard four of his art songs. Æbleblomst (Apple Blossom, poem by Ludwig Holstein) is one of Nielsen's loveliest, a Nordic romance in style. In Høgen (The Hawk, poem by Jeppe Aakjaer) the bird's flight is feral and daring and the singer met the challenge of giving voice to his flight. The gentle lullaby that followed Saenk kun dit Hoved, du Blomst (Sweet Flowers Lay Down Your Head) was followed by the excitement of winter's end expressed in high voice in Den første Laerke (The Larks are Coming).
For all the work, study and travel that went into creating this fine program, the evening was challenging for many listeners. The fine-tuned hall which offers a clear hearing of every sound in it was filled with music from the stage and an elderly man three rows behind me using a breathing device that occasionally synchronized with the rhythm of the music. Having this auditory distraction prevented many listeners from enjoying this superbly performed recital to its fullest.
Another set of songs by Grieg, this time sung in Norwegian, Fire Digte fra “Fiskerjenten,” Op. 21 (Four Songs from "The Fisher Maiden") was accompanied by Kasparov. The texts are simple observations on themes of nature with texts by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Det første Møde (The First Encounter) feels like all nature is united in wonder. God morgen! (Good morning!) has a “hip, hop” steady rhythm. In Jeg giver mit digt til våren (To Springtime my Song I'm Singing) her heart longs for spring flowers conspiring with the sun to banish winter; In Tak for dit råd (Say What You Will) ignoring a rough sea the passionate singer must launch her boat feeling the power of ocean while avoiding the treacherous shoal.
Turning once again to Nielsen, Oksana Lutsyshyn played Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3 (1889-1890) which is Nielsen's first published work for the piano. It is diverse in mood and expression, “Folk Tune” is stylized while “Arabesque” foreshadows his future compositions' sense of harmonic waywardness and “Mignon” is a moody, lilting waltz. ”Elf's Dance” ends the group.
The pieces in the rest of the program were by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and though he was an ardent Finnish patriot, most of his 93 songs were settings of Swedish poems. Middle class Finns of his day were raised speaking Swedish and only later as an adult did he learn Finnish with its epic poetry that he gives voice in his symphonic music.
Sung in Swedish, we heard Soluppgång (Sunrise) and Flckan kom ifrån sin älsklingsmöte (The girl came from meeting her lover), both from Sibelius' Op. 37 Five Songs. The second is a riddle song. The daughter comes home with red hands, then red lips, and finally pale cheeks. The fourth verse with a roiling, rumble in the piano reveals the truth of her lover's betrayal.
Local favorite, violinist Annika Jenkins, who is currently an advanced student at Juilliard, joined Ms. Lutsyshyn for Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 81 (1915). The “Mazurka” movement offered a wild and free Gypsy melody while in “Rodino” Ms. Jenkins “was relaxed in her own company.” “Valse” offered lovely violin tones and “Aubade” has piano chords and plucked violin strings that morphed into engaging variations. The “Menuetto” offered a sweet, high violin melody.
The sadness of old age in Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring is Fleeting) is assuaged by memories harvested in the summer of her days. Ms. Stauch's open communication continued in Var det en dröm? (Was it a dream?). Love as brief as the bloom of an anemone is a memory deep in your breast—your best dream!
These regional, Scandinavian composers left behind an imposing body of work integral to the 20th century as a whole. As Nielsen says in his book Living Music: "The simplest is the hardest, the universal the most lasting, the straightest the strongest, like the pillars that support the dome.” The encore was Grieg's Jeg elsker Dig (I love You), text by Hans Christian Andersen. With it Ms. Stauch caressed our hearts: “You have become thought of my thought, you are my heart's first love. I love you, as no one here on earth, I shall love you through time and eternity.” All of this in a song that lasted less than two minutes.
Percussionist and marimba virtuoso Kevin Bobo flat-out wowed the audience at the university’s Chandler Recital Hall in a joint presentation February 27 by the Norfolk Chamber Consort and the university’s Diehn Concert Series. A master class at ODU was scheduled for the next day. This is his third appearance at Old Dominion University: the NCC audience first met him on February 2, 2009; he returned on October 3, 2011 for the Paul Bowles program to play his marimba piece Flurries inspired by Paul Bowles.
You could have heard a pin drop—no, there was too much shimmering sound for that—but at the end of the last piece, the entire audience waited, not even breathing, for the last overtones to die away before erupting into applause.
Now for those who aren’t too clear on what a marimba is, it’s a percussion instrument whose wooden bars are laid out like piano keys; suspended underneath the bars are resonator tubes that amplify the sound. It’s more resonant than the xylophone and has a larger, lower-pitched range.
Related instruments include the glockenspiel often heard in marching bands, which has tuned metal bars. The vibraphone, or vibes, familiar to jazz fans, has metal bars, not wooden ones; each bar is paired with a resonator tube with a motor-driven butterfly valve at the top end; like the piano, it also has a sustain pedal that can lengthen or shorten the sound.
But the marimba is the most versatile, especially in the hands of a master like Kevin Bobo.
The concert began with Two Impressions, pieces by composer Tracy Thomas, a former student of Bobo’s. The first had subtle dynamics; the instrument’s rich bass just floated. In the second, the right hand rhythms differed from those in the left hand before coming back together in conjunct rhythms.
Bobo was called to do a concert in Tennessee, and was told it had to be fun. So he thought he’d do a medley and talking—while he was playing this virtuosic music—about why he chose to play the marimba, hence the title, 31 Reasons Why. It was hilarious, from his initial interest, to advanced techniques (ooh, four mallets!) to “Mexican dances” that he compared to a bunch of drunk clowns running around on unicycles. He did Bach fragments—a cello piece, a violin bit, a chorale—and keyboard. He combined classical with classic rock, all with a spoken machine-gun delivery—oh, it was brilliant, and definitely fun!
For his composition Boboland, he was joined by ODU Percussion Ensemble students Michael Vasquez, Sarah Williams and Jon Wudijono, directed by professor David Walker. It incorporated marimba mastery and cheeky humor, virtuosity and weird whistles and calls—wonderful stuff, and the ensemble members were thoroughly well prepared!
During the interval, a young ODU student shook his head and breathed, “Now we percussionists feel really small.” Don’t be discouraged, kid—it takes a long time and a lot of practice to make it this good, and look this easy.
For more than 45 years, William Cahn has been a member of the Canadian percussion group NEXUS. In Ancient Temple Gardens featured Andrey Kasparov on piano with Bobo on percussion, beginning with a large chime that punctuated the piano’s rippling melody; then a long solo of two-mallet work and chime with the piano tacet. The piano reentered quietly, while Bobo’s mallets blurred at speed, then chimes, bells, wooden block, chimes, and glissandos sweeping up and down on both piano and marimba—awesome.
The final work on the program was Mudra, by Bob Becker, another NEXUS member, for solo drum and percussion ensemble, with Bobo on solo tom-tom and members of the ODU Percussion Ensemble. Once they got into it, it was almost sonic overload when everything happened at once—the classic Indian-sounding scale, the martial tom-tom, the bass drum—it was very physical music, not only to play but, as an audience member, to feel.
Bobo is professor of percussion at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music; as a solo marimba artist, he has played all over the world. And if he shows up in Norfolk again—we certainly hope so—mark your calendar and go!. You really don’t want to miss hearing him.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”