On paper, it looked like a fascinating albeit risky undertaking - six UNC conductors, reverting to their various original instruments (no pun intended, even at the one-time hotbed of HIP, or historically-informed performance) for a program of mixed chamber music. And indeed the occasion prompted reflection on several recurring themes - the question of vocal music as chamber music, the question of solo work as chamber music, the desirability of intermissions, the need for program notes and biographies, the importance of including at a minimum composers' dates, if not the dates of the compositions.... There are no clear answers to the first two items, as various area chamber music presenters who monitor their audiences will attest; but all that said, the program given in Person Recital Hall on the UNC campus on the evening of August 28 turned out to be fascinating, in its way....
In order of appearance, the stick-wavers (or hand wavers) were saxophonist Matthew McClure, who leads the University Band and is also involved with bands that play for sports events; clarinetist Michael Votta, Jr., director of the UNC Wind Ensemble and the Triangle Brass Band and NC Wind Orchestra; pianist Tonu Kalam, Music Director of the UNCSO and the Longview (TX) SO; and vocalists Susan Klebanow, who also performed as a pianist, amd who leads the Carolina Choir and Chamber Singers; Sue T. Klausmeyer, director of the Women's Glee Club and the Chapel Hill Community Chorus; and Daniel Huff, master of the Men's Glee Club.
By and large, the instrumentalists did a bit better than the singers, but all were brave to do it, there was much to admire throughout the program, and the works selected offered considerable interest and variety as well. Things got underway with an uncredited arrangement of the Largo movement of Bach's D Minor Concerto for Two Violins, S.1043, for soprano saxophone, clarinet, and piano, played by McClure, Votta, and Klebanow. When the latter arrived at UNC, she was fresh from the famous Boston Camerata, and her recordings - which involved some solo work - gave tangible proof of her artistic excellence, which she has continued to exude in her choral leadership in Chapel Hill. That said, this was the first time we've heard her as a pianist/accompanist, and alas there wasn't much for her to do. Person is a small, bright room, and the customary concert set-up was changed this time, with the artists on the east side, but it didn't ease the hall's inherent brightness, and the opening piece seemed much too loud. It was a treat to hear, nonetheless, and old timers will recall the use - years ago - of soprano (or sopranino) saxes in the Brandenburg Second, before baroque trumpet playing was effectively revived. The arrangement worked well in that regard, and the engagement of the wind players was palpable.
Two songs by Spohr for soprano (Klebanow), clarinet, and piano (Kalam was at the keyboard for these and the rest of the show) shed new light on music by a celebrated 19th century master. Like some of Schubert's ballads, the first one - "Das Heimlische Lied" - went on a bit too long, but it was enhanced by some attractive excursions for the clarinet. The more concise "Wach auf" worked better. Texts and translations were provided.
McClure returned for two of Ryo Noda's "Improvisations," placed in quotes here because they are apparently written out and don't allow much (if any) freedom for the player, aside from normal interpretive niceties. The soloist provided notes on this composer (b.1948), who has apparently stretched the saxophone (an alto, in this case) beyond the norm most music lovers have come to expect. The performances were dazzling from start to finish.
Mezzo-soprano Klausmeyer and Kalam provided relief (for some) in the form of two great Gershwin tunes, "By Strauss" and "They All Laughed." The words weren't in the program, but the charm and wit embodied in the texts was admirably conveyed, and while the results were light-hearted, the performances were serious, engaging, and attractive.
The program's highlight turned out to be Finzi's Five Bagatelles, for clarinet and piano. The admirable English composer's vocal music is heard from time to time, but his instrumental scores are not well known. As Votta's program note revealed, Finzi's Clarinet Concerto is on the UNCSO's lineup for this season (with Donald L. Oehler, soloist), so the inclusion of the chamber score was a welcome appetizer. Votta played with exceptional skill and was splendidly partnered by Kalam.
The finale began with duets (not arias, as the program indicated) from Handel's Samson and Judas Maccabaeus, rendered by Klebanow and Huff, whose light tenor voice (with a quasi-countertenor extension) made this listener regret that he wasn't given a solo turn. The program ended with a delightful romp through "Happy We" from Acis and Galatea, in which all six artists participated to produce the sort of "grand noise" that would surely have delighted Thomas Beecham - and that might also have prompted purists (had any been there) to flee from the chamber by means of the nearest egress. On the basis of this, we propose "Oh Happy We" as the UNC Music Department's theme song - but an encore performance with this cast of characters may not be desirable. Instead, we look forward to hearing these folks in their customary roles, as directors of various UNC ensembles, as the season unfolds. For a list of what that season entails, see our series tab.