Lisa Relaford Coston's Gift

What does it matter that tears flow as I remember the Sunday afternoon when friends of Lisa Relaford Coston gathered at Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church in Norfolk on May 23, 2010? We, her soul clan, gathered to celebrate her life, a life devoted to bringing joy to everyone who heard her sing. Musicians and listeners alike came “In loving memory,” as the program was titled, to honor her gift of voice and loving heart in service to music, freely given.

Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn organized this secular, though spiritual, memorial with Andrey as host. Spoken tributes, recordings of her singing and live performances of art song and aria were offered.

In the program notes Andrey Kasparov tells us of his and his wife Oksana's first meeting Lisa.

It was an emergency. In 2000, while bombs were still exploding in Belgrade, I started working on organizing a concert of contemporary Serbian composers. After I had finally got the scores, with great difficulties may I add, my attention was drawn to a piece by Isidora Žebeljan Rukoveti, a large-scale composition for mezzo soprano and orchestra or piano. As the concert was approaching in less than two months, I urgently needed a mezzo soprano with an acute sense of pitch and strong linguistic skills to be able to sing in a completely unknown language combined with a contemporary music idiom.

After a few unsuccessful attempts I finally got a break when Agnes Wynne introduced me to Lisa during one of the concerts in the Chandler Recital Hall. Unpretentious and friendly, she attempted to rise from her seat while shaking my hand, even though she was very much in pain pending her hip replacement surgery. I had very little idea that Oksana and I were about to enter one of the most fruitful and profound personal and professional relationships of our lives. It was not only her musical talent, but also her wit, brilliance and the deliciously unexpected turns of her humor that made our friendship so fulfilling.

To open the program, soprano Agnes Mobley-Wynne sang Prayer by Ricky Ian Gordon, accompanied by Oksana Lutsyshyn at the piano. The searching text of the song “I do not know” focused us on the mystery of death. Exploring the theme with a lighter heart, Robert Shoup, who conducted Lisa for many years in the Virginia Symphony Chorus and the Virginia Chorale, sang Ralph Vaughan Williams' Whither Must I Wander with Kasparov as accompanist. It was an exuberant delivery of a wistful tune with a closing line of “I'll come again no more.”

Composer Adolphus Hailstork's recorded message casting himself in the role of chief mourner remembered the ravishing beauty of her voice and her spirit. We then heard a fragment from Dr. Hailstork's cantata Crispus Attucks (2005) with Lisa as soloist with the I.Sherman Green Chorale, Old Dominion University Chamber Chorus with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.

Accompanied by Ms. Lutsyshyn, contralto and local voice teacher Sondra Gelb sang Rachmaninoff's Let us rest with its message of the end of suffering in a calm peace that is as lovely as a sweet caress. There was a haunting beauty in this deeply felt goodbye by Ms. Gelb. This was followed by the recorded Rachmaninoff song Oh, do not grieve by Lisa with Andrey at the piano.

Tenor Scott Williamson, current conductor of the Virginia Chorale, gave us Mahler's Wo die schönen trompeten blasen (Where the beautiful trumpets blow). With Kasparov at the piano the liquid tone of the voice gave us this folk-like, heartfelt tune of trumpets over his house of green sod growing. Following a recording of Lisa singing Debussy's C'est l'extase with Andrey at the piano, Amy Cofield Williamson sang the ravishingly beautiful Depuis le jour (Louise) by Charpentier. Under the agile fingers of Ms. Lutsyshyn the keys rippled out a foundation for a blissful statement of the sweetness of life – and the first day of love. Like Lisa, Amy enters into the world of a song and brings the listener in with her.

Two years ago, challenged by her collaboration with Dr. Kasparov, Lisa sang several selections from Olivier Messiaen Počms pour Mi for a Norfolk Chamber Consort program. As a remembrance he asked Robynne Redmon, the Met Opera mezzo-soprano from Deep Creek to sing Le Collier (The necklace) and Pričre exaucée (Fulfilled prayer) with Kasparov at the piano. It was Ms. Redmon's first performance of these songs. The depth of passion plumbed by Ms. Redmon in Messiaen in the full richness of her instrument with complex overtones was exciting to experience. The piano is wild in the music and it was a most satisfying experience.

The final selections were recordings of Lisa singing as soloist with the Cantata Chorus, led by her friend and collaborator Allen Shaffer in Is there anybody here that loves my Jesus? and Sometimes I feel like a moanin' dove set by Alice Parker. Lisa's singing has an urgency that cuts straight to the heart. Her firm, earthy voice anchors me inside my self. Her sound is spare and uncomplicated. I will continue to miss her. So many of us will carry on inspired by the memory of a soul and voice devoted to music. We shared a moment of silence to end.

Instead of trying to recap the spoken tribures, we will give Andrey Kasparov the last word, once again from the program booklet.

Since we met, Lisa sang not only in Serbian, but also in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Dutch and Russian, not to mention the standard Western European languages. She performed and gave world, Virginian and North American premieres of works by the composers Jurriaan Andriessen (The Netherlands), Tsippi Fleischer (Israel), Adolphus Hailstork (USA), Tom Johnson (USA), Ton de Leeuw (The Netherlands), Vera Stanojevic (Serbia/USA), Alicia Terzian (Argentina), and numerous others.
In her later years, when she worked closely with the Norfolk Chamber Consort, of which Oksana and I are the artistic co-directors, we concentrated our attention on more traditional repertoire, including her favorites: French and Russian lieder. Describing her performance on the CD Hommages Musicaux (Albany Records), Stephen Eddins of All Music Guide writes that her “warm voice soars in the Satie song.”
We kept planning our repertoire for the 2010/2011 concert season up to the time of her shockingly unexpected illness and passing. Now, Oksana and I struggle and fail to find the right words in our first, second and third language to express the feeling of this enormous loss. But perhaps the words are not even necessary—let the music take over and speak for us all.

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