Sing for Joy


Robynne Redmon with Symphonicity
at Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, November 18, 2007

I could talk about the fine sound in the new Sandler Center or how grand the John Williams arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner was or how fine Symphonicity played the Wagner overture to The Flying Dutchman. All of this is true, but for the art song aficionado Robynne Redmon's performance of Elgar's Sea Pictures, Op.37 demands my focus. Her singing was superb. Her vocal line was without apparent vibrato. It was a constant, lovely, flowing sound with the "sheen of silver and the glamour of gold" to quote from The Swimmer, the last song of the cycle with its passages of great drama.

The cycle opens with a lullaby text, Sea Slumber Song, a lovely musical setting. In Haven is a song about a love that "stands"... "lasts"...and... "stays" when "storms are sweeping sea and land." Sabbath Morning at Sea is a setting of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: breaking through the darkness of the deep sea she experiences the ecstasy of a glorified light emphasized by the swelling orchestral sound. There was metal in her voice as Robynne Redmon sang "And on the sea commixed with fire, oft drop their eyelids raised too long to the full Godhead's burning." The other song in the cycle, Where Corals Lie has a rich, smooth vocal line while "the orchestra reflects emotional undercurrents by veering between detached accompaniment and entwined counterpoint" to quote the program notes. After rounds of applause and a standing ovation Ms. Redmon's signature tune, Can't Help Loving That Man (Kern), was fun but also a shock. I would have been content to have Sea Pictures go on and on; she was just that good.

Many of us had been distressed to see the Pavilion Theater demolished two years ago but the Sandler Center wiped all of that away. It is a beautiful, even grand modern performance space. Suite from Swan Lake, Op.20a by Tchaikovsky functioned as a sample of how clearly instrumental sounds project in the new hall as the eight musical scenes unfold from the hauntingly lonely opening scene to the Spanish and Neapolitan Dances (think Rossini) to the closing Mazurka. By contrast, in both the old Pavilion Theater and in Chrysler Hall the sound is muffled and instrumental detail is lost.

This Gala Opening Concert by Symphonicity, which has been known since its founding in 1981 as the Virginia Beach Symphony, was led by David S. Kunkel, Music Director and Conductor extraordinaire. It is his persistence and hard work that has brought this all-volunteer symphony to its present high level of accomplishment. The playing on Sunday sounded inspired, the best concert I have ever heard by this group and Maestro Kunkel proudly beamed as he showed off their new home.

To sample the acoustics of the hall we moved to the balcony for the second half of the program. The sound up there was full and balanced. If anything, it was even more so than in row L in the orchestra where we sat for the first half. We also discussed the sound with two couples we know who sat in the mezzanine. It is fair to conclude that wherever you sit you will have excellent, open energetic sound. Also because the floor is so steeply angled the person in front of you cannot block your view.

The closing piece, Sea Song Fantasy, was commissioned for this occasion from composer John Wasson by Symphonicity and sponsored by Next Financial Group. It was a pleasant and conservative musical setting of sea chanteys.

Symphonicity's 25th Annual Free Messiah Sing Along takes place on Sunday, December 23 at 8:00 pm at Sandler Center. As usual the audience will sing the choruses from the Christmas portion of Messiah. This year's soloists will be Billye Brown Youmans, soprano; Lisa Coston, mezzo-soprano; Ollie Marseglia, tenor; and Steve Kelley, bass. Music Director and Conductor David S. Kunkel will lead the orchestra. Messiah scores will be on sale in the lobby prior to the concert for $10. Doors to the theater open at 7:15 P.M. Observers may sit in the mezzanine or balcony sections.

Soloists Emily Stauch and Walter Swan
"Sing for Joy" with Symphonicity

Maestor David KunkelDavid S. Kunkel was conducting a full rehearsal of John Rutter's Mass of the Children when I arrived on Saturday afternoon. The Kyrie was going well. The players of Symphonicity, the symphony orchestra and chorus of Virginia Beach, were joined by the Old Dominion University Concert Choir (Dr. Nancy Klein, director) and the Virginia Children's Chorus (Carol Thomas Downing, music director) for the symphony's annual choral program.

The concert was scheduled for February 24, 2008, but because there was an art song recital at the same time, I was allowed to come to the rehearsal. A friend will be here tomorrow and will share his impressions with me to round out my review. Henceforth, he will be referred to as Mr. Friendly.

Young men were carrying in a platform for the soloists which they placed behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus to the left of the conductor while the Virginia Children's Chorus in turquoise-colored T-shirts glowed at stage right. The glow seemed to become more intense when they sang. Deborah Carr, Symphonicity Choirmaster, was listening with the score, giving feedback to conductor Kunkel about how they sounded from the middle of the orchestra. Russell Breeding, who records the concerts, explained the challenge of recording soloists, 209 choristers and the symphony and having it all balanced. This was the symphony's first time with chorus in this new hall.

Soprano Emily StauchIn the Gloria from the Rutter Mass, the 8th note seemed eternal, as it goes on and on. The children sang first, then the adult choirs, then by turns, soloist soprano Emily Stauch and bass Walter Swan sang elegantly without being drowned out. Maestro Kunkel suggested that for the second run-through they give more energy to the closing amen. He encouraged the singers, "think of it as a sort of music to accompany a morning sunrise." He often illustrated a point with a comic story. The atmosphere seemed without tension as he gently cajoled the performers into a more polished reading. The soloists again blended their voices and it was very beautiful as the adult chorus accompanied and a tambourine added rhythm.

In the Agnus Dei the music sounds mysterious, tentative, expectant. It is Rutter at this best. In March, 2001, Rutter's young son, a computer whiz and singer, was killed outside Clare College, Cambridge. Rutter could find no inspiration to write for two long years. From his agony comes Mass of the Children with the usual trademarks of his music: the flowing melodies, catchy rhythms and pop-tinged harmonies.

Baritone Walter SwanIn the Finale Dr. Swan's baritone was liquid gold flowing out as he sang "Lord, open thou my heart that I may love thee, . . .keep my soul with thee now and forever." In the prayer for peace that follows, Ms. Stauch sang with a pleasing power of persuasion. Only when the soloists and choruses sang together at the very end did we lose their sound. Ms. Carr and Mr. Breeding were working on this problem, suggesting solutions as the rehearsal moved on to Poulenc's Gloria. The Children's Chorus left since they don't sing in the Gloria. For the Sunday performance, Mr. Friendly commented "It sounds like, well, Rutter. For example, the harp is prominent. Five movements . . .and it takes about 40 minutes but it did not seem that long. The orchestra played its best music of the day . . . the soloists sang very well and the Virginia Children's Chorus added the pure tones of English choral singing."

In Francis Poulenc's (1899-1963) Gloria (1959) the strings accompany the soprano and the woodwinds accompany the chorus. There is a rocking lilt to the musical line that is shared by soprano and chorus. This piece always seems fresh and unpredictable to me, with lines that seem to tumble one on top of another. Emily Stauch's sound was gorgeous.

Poulenc wrote Gloria as a commission for the Koussevitsky Foundation of America. It was an immediate success and has remained a favorite ever since. The piece captures a sense of the mysterious. Poulenc uses a chord that evokes mystery, the mystery that is a part of mankind's religious response that inspired Poulenc's musical impulse. From the introduction, with its discordant undertone as if the instruments suddenly go out of tune, Poulenc grabs your attention, which is immediately filled by the chorus. Mr. Friendly's critique reads: "About 150 singers took the stage, this was visually quite impressive. When they sang they were aurally quite impressive too, very well rehearsed. The orchestra supported them well, negotiating some tricky rhythms and dissonances with assurance. Soloist Emily Stauch complimented the choir well."

Though the program opened with Johannes Brahms' (1833-1897) Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56, it was rehearsed last so the chorus could finish and leave. The theme, St. Anthony Chorale, in B-flat major (1873), is followed by eight variations and a finale. The variations range from very animated to very relaxed. Some sparkle, others have a romantic feeling. Some whisper, others declare joy. Brahms uses "every conceivable device of contrapuntal ingenuity, together with rhythms of 16th century keyboard composers" the program notes tell us. Mr. Friendly's report on the opening work of Sunday's performance: "Strings a little insecure, woodwinds a little out of tune, brass a little off tempo - all pulled together by the end. I think that playing in Sandler regularly will be very good for the ensemble. Also, I think a significant difference between a professional orchestra and a community orchestra is that the professional orchestra is together from the first downbeat. There was a good house - probably 1,100 of 1,300 seats were filled."

Mr. Friendly's report did not surprise me. The playing was a bit rough in rehearsal. On Saturday I noted that Maestro Kunkel evoked their best performance by urging their cooperation with patience and insistence to get the job done for tomorrow's performance. During the Brahms rehearsal I spent part of my time in the balcony and part in the mezzanine. Because it is only five rows deep the sound seems more intimate. Wherever you sit, don't miss Symphonicity's next performance.

Emily Stauch and her husband, Russell Breeding, will be moving to Cleveland, Ohio at the end of May. Their good will and creative energy will enhance their new community as it has this one. They will be missed.

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