Saturday, May 3, 2008

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

May 2, Bon Air Presbyterian Church
May 3, Virginia Holocaust Museum

It may be repetitious and banal to say that this country is a cultural "melting pot," the product of many ethnic groups and histories. Demonstrate that with music, however, and the fact becomes fascinating and full of surprises.

James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music, devoted this year to American chamber music and art-song from the colonial to the contemporary, spent its final weekend exploring the diverse musical cultures that contribute to American music today. Two programs featured works drawn from African, Latin, Amerindian, Japanese, Chinese and Jewish traditions, as well as the "Great American Songbook" of mid-20th century Tin Pan Alley and musical theater.

The May 2 concert opened with violinist Diane Pascal and pianist Carsten Schmidt playing three miniatures: a bolero in mid-19th century style by the Bostonian Charles C. Perkins; a sentimental lament akin to a spiritual, from the "Southland Sketches" of Henry T. Burleigh, the black musician whose songs inspired Antonin Dvořák; and “Gamin,” an energetic, bluesy movement from the Suite for violin and piano (1943) by William Grant Still, the most prominent African-American composer of the mid-20th century.

Pianist Lori Piitz also delved into African-American tradition, playing the barcarolle and "Juba" from "In the Bottoms" (1913), a ragtime-inflected suite by R. Nathaniel Dett, a composer who spent much of his career as the choirmaster of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia.

Alongside those pieces were "Chinese Ancient Dances" (2004), adaptations of an ox-tail dance and Persian-influenced Hu Xuan dance from the Tang dynasty by the Chinese émigré Chen Yi, in which clarinetist Laura DeLuca and pianist Schmidt reveled in special effects and impersonations of Asian instrumental sounds; and the Cello Sonata (2007) of John Hilliard, a Virginia composer inspired in this music by art and crafts of Japanese Okinawa.

Cellist Wilson and Schmidt, who introduced the Hilliard sonata at last summer’s Staunton Music Festival, reprised it here with satisfyingly lyrical treatment of the two "arias" in the first movement and simmering energy in the finale.

The most striking work on the program was Gabriela Lena Frank’s "Las Sombras de los Apus" (1999), a tone poem for four cellos based on the mythological Peruvian apus, a mountain spirit who sets off earthquakes and avalanches when not placated by humans. The differently tuned instruments, played here by Wilson, Carl Donakowski, Alan Richardson and Philip Borter, create a wide range of tonal effects and sound in complex counterpoint, rarified harmonics and passages of near-synchronization. The piece is very dense, yet quite delicate – certainly one of the most remarkable chamber works written in the past decade.

Mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler and pianist Gabriel Dobner, who had sampled the songbook of Stephen Foster in the festival’s April 29 concert, returned on May 2 for a set of songs by George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Kay Swift. Mutchler adopted a seductively torchy tone in Gershwin’s "I’ve Got a Crush on You" and Berlin’s "What’ll I Do?" enhanced by a slower-than-usual tempo.

The May 3 concert, titled "Remember and Celebrate," was devoted largely to song settings of poems from the Holocaust, in wildly contrasting tones of voice.

"Poems from the Holocaust" (1995-98) by the Richmond composer Allan Blank joins three tragically wistful poems from "I Never Saw a Butterfly," a collection from children at the Terezin concentration camp, sung in English, with more overtly mournful treatments of "Toys" by Abrahan Sutzkever and "Close Your Precious Eyes" by Isaiah Spiegel, sung in Yiddish. Mutchler, accompanied by double-bassist Anthony Manzo and pianist Schmidt, was an eloquently somber voice in the two large pieces.

"Camp Songs" (2001) by Paul Schoenfield sets five scathingly sarcastic poems by Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a Polish inmate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Kulisiewicz’s bitter, scatological verses, in Polish garnished with German, are given acidic, ironic treatment by Schoenfield, a Cleveland-based composer who draws heavily on klezmer and other Jewish vernacular styles.

Mutchler and baritone David Newman sang "Camp Songs" a good deal straighter than the composer probably intended – both the words and musical style cry out for a cabaret singer’s treatment. Clarinetist DeLuca, violinist Pascal, cellist Wilson, double-bassist Manzo and pianist Piitz compensated nicely in the ironic humor departrment.

The program opened with DeLuca, Pascal, Wilson and Schmidt playing the four-movement, klezmer-accented Divertimento that David Schiff arranged from "Gimpel the Fool," his 1979 opera on the story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.