What do you get when you cross a sizable objet d’art of art deco persuasion with a magnificent chambre à concert from nineteenth century times? In the case at hand, you would have the elegant and super-French setting for the latest edition of the fine Smedes Parlor Concert Series from Saint Mary’s School. The art object referred to was the striking, ornately sculptured harp played so ably by Laura Byrne. The chamber of course was the beautiful, recently renewed parlor at Saint Mary’s. The French connection arose from the fact that seven of the eight composers featured were of that nationality (the eighth one hailing from Philadelphia). The other two artists lending their celebrated talents were flutist Pamela Nelson and soprano Judith Bruno.
The flute and harp duo played a couple of pieces entitled entr’acte even before the first “act” was over. The initial one of these, by Ibert, seemed of enormous complexity but readily handled by the flutist. The second recalled and refined an old favorite melody from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Between these two came the “Piece en Forme de Habanera” of Ravel. Here the harpist was in top form as she furnished the beat that gave the piece its dance-like energy.
For the lone harp solo Byrne chose the showpiece “Chanson dans la Nuit” by noted harpist and composer Carlos Salzedo. Within the fascinating work she elicited some unharp-like sounds by use of unorthodox fingering and drumming techniques. Flute and harp collaborated on Fauré’s “Morceau du Concours,” with dreamy lines presaging the later Debussy. Then Debussy’s own “En Bateau” evoked similar moods, complemented by placing the hearer in a gently rocking boat.
Three songs for soprano, with harp accompaniment, opened with Gounod’s “Ave Maria.” This is a work that can be seen as hackneyed to the point of tedium. Bruno’s taut control and absence of over-dramatization made it sound almost new and altogether pleasant. Her other songs, “Sainte” by Ravel, and Fauré’s “Apres un reve” showed the same discipline and admirable (too rare) control of vibrato.
The eight-movement “Serenade No. 10 for Flute and Harp” by Vincent Persichetti closed the evening. The piece was well named in that the two instruments acted as equal participants. The opening Larghetto smacked of Bartók, as did the Allegretto. The Adagietto, with its intricate give and take must surely have required the most rehearsal time. The closing Vivo indicated the very same level of complexity as the opening piece, thus perhaps closing a loop of sorts.
Faculty member and concert hostess Terry Thompson invited the audience to consider the pleasing “sonority” provided by these artists, instruments and surroundings. Could anyone there have found reason to challenge her? (It would prove an unmixed blessing to the audience if it were ever practical to furnish a temporary stage for the performers.)