Spoleto USA 2006: Choral, Intermezzi, and Orchestral Overview
by William Thomas Walker
The all-orchestral concert heard in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium on June 1 was a spectacular success for the enthusiastic young musicians of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and the festival's Music Director for Opera and Orchestra, Emmanuel Villaume. The program of works by two of the greatest composer-conductors of the 20th century would have taxed the skills of a seasoned orchestra, much less a group of (mostly) recent conservatory graduates, melded into an ensemble in a short rehearsal period. The pieces also separate time-beaters from musicians on the podium.
Richard Strauss took the chromatic and lush orchestral technique of Wagner about as far as it could go. As program music, his series of tone poems and such works as the "Alpine Symphony" exhausted that approach. One of his finest tone poems is "Don Juan" Op. 20 (1888). The composer does not attempt to give a narrative of the scenario by Nikolaus Lenau. Rather he evokes the passions: longing, searching, discovery, finding, fulfillment, and death. The solo violin theme and the big horn theme that comes later convey two facets of Don Juan's character – unsettled desire and pursuit. Villaume shaped and phrased the music beautifully, and his players dug in passionately, following every twist and turn. The sections played as one, in perfect synchrony. The strings produced a full, rich sound, the woodwinds played with a refined sense of color, and the brasses were brilliant while still retaining warmth. The important oboe solos were played by Nicholas Masterson, the clarinet solos, by Michael Byerly, and the horn solos, by Todor Popsotyanov. Among the musicians Villaume asked to stand was Concertmistress Joanna Frankel, whose reticence belied the fire of her solos.
Over the thirty years of the Spoleto Festival USA, Mahler symphonies have been programmed often. There are careful but passionless Mahler performances and there are passionate Mahler performances that can carry the listener over most rough spots. Villaume's interpretation of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor combined the best of both approaches, culminating in one of the strongest Mahler performances I have heard since 1979 at the festival. The unjaded musicians followed every nuance of dynamic, every sudden change of tempo, and every choice of phrasing. The important trumpet solo was played by Oscar Garcia-Montoya; the horn solos were by Alberto Suarez, harp solos, by Lindsay Erdahl, and bassoon solos, by Adrian Morejon. The superb violin solos were by Concertmistress Frankel. Villaume recognized many other soloists and each section during repeated calls in the course of the long and well-earned standing ovation.
The joint choral and orchestral concert in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium on June 5 was a reunion for featured mezzo-soprano soloist Jennifer Larmore and conductor Joseph Flummerfelt. In the summer of 1976, the 19-year-old was a rising sophomore at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Flummerfelt arranged for the choir to perform at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and in Charleston. In the Umbrian Hill town, Larmore met her future husband, bass-baritone William Powers (recently heard as Dr. Bartolo in Rossini's Barber in Raleigh). The international opera star credits Flummerfelt as an important mentor. She donated her appearance at this year's festival.
Mozart composed his Mass in C minor, K.427, called "the Great," as the fulfillment of a vow for his wife's recovery and an attempt to reconcile with his family. Mozart composed his Mass in C minor, K.427, called "the Great," as the fulfillment of a vow for his wife's recovery. He planned to use his visit to Salzburg and its performance as part of an attempt to reconcile with his family. Mozart's father was upset by Mozart's hasty marriage, his growing desire for artistic independence, and his resistance to patronage and the conventions it entailed. The visit was basically unsuccessful across the board, and the breach with his father was not healed. The mass was premiered in Salzburg on October 26, 1783. It is unfinished: the Credo is incomplete and there is no Agnus Dei.
Larmore was joined by tenor Steven Tharp and bass Rosendo Flores, both of whom have but brief parts due to the score's incompleteness. Scheduled soprano Nicole Cabell, the brilliant Juliette in the Gounod opera, was replaced at the last minute by Elie Dehn, who sang Donna Elvira in last year's (and this year's) Don Giovanni production. It was too bad that her appearance was announced over the public address system only after members of the audience complained about the oversight at intermission. All the soloists were fine, but it was mostly the women who were featured. Larmore sang with a pure sense of style, evenly supported vocal line, and excellent diction. Her voice easily filled the hall. Dehn's robust soprano seemed to be more Romantic in style, but her handling of the melodic line was good. Flummerfelt balanced the orchestra perfectly with the combined members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus (prepared by Robert Taylor) and the Westminster Choir. All of the choir's text could be readily followed. The conductor's tempos were brisk and his phrasing stylish. It was a very satisfying interpretation.
Larmore came into her full glory after intermission. The dusky richness of her voice was revealed as she sang Brahms' dark Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, soaring over an all-male chorus and the orchestra. The second part, a hymn-like appeal, was simply transcendent.
Larmore, the consummate actress-singer, was revealed in two dramatic opera excerpts and a no-holds-barred encore. It is too bad she couldn't have sung the pants role of Romeo in the festival's 2004 production of Bellini's I Capuletti ed i Montecchi. All the passion missing from that staging seethed in Larmore's singing of "La tremenda ultrice spada," in which Romeo accepts the Capulet's challenge of war. "Esulte Elisa, o mai in giorno," from Rossini's Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, ends in a brilliant cabaletta. Larmore's stunning performance brought the audience to its feet for many curtain calls. Her over-the-top acting and singing of Victor Herbert's "The Prima Donna Song" was simply priceless.
The Intermezzo series can be wide ranging, running the gamut from solo recitals to chamber orchestra programs. Contemporary composers' re-imaginings in response to Mozart were the focus of Intermezzo Program IV, heard in Grace Episcopal Church on June 4. John Kennedy conducted musicians drawn from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
Two works by Michael Nyman (b.1944) were featured. The composer formed an eclectic band that mixed both ancient and modern instruments. In Re Don Giovanni (1977) was the first piece Nyman wrote for this band; it is based on sixteen measures from Leporello's "Catalog Aria" from Don Giovanni. According to the composer, "This short piece strums the key (D and d) in a variety of textures." Edgy and scurrying strings hover above pizzicato cello notes. This was crisply played by the featured soloists, violinists Melissa Ussery and Clinton Dewing, violist Jennifer Ferrian, and cellist Andrea Lee.
Nyman's orchestration seemed to work against his song setting of a letter of Mozart, "Mozart on Mortality." Soprano Linda Jones sang the words clearly with a pleasing timbre while fighting against a clarinet's intensity.
"Moz-Art à la Haydn" (1981) for Two Violins and Small Orchestras, by Alfred Schnittke (1934-98), is a playful collage of fragments of themes from Mozart's Pantomime Music K.446. Violinists Joanna Frankel and Melissa Ussery reveled in the mix of sour notes, weird harmonics, and synchronous bowed and plucked notes. The score calls upon one of the violinists to briefly whistle as she plays. Audience chuckles were an apt response.
Most welcome was "Amadeus Ex Machina" (2006) by Lawrence Dillon (b.1959), Dean of Composition at the NC School of the Arts. Add this to his growing list of challenging yet audience-friendly compositions, of which a number have been reviewed by CVNC. It was commissioned by the Carolina Chamber Symphony and premiered at Wake Forest University in 2002. According to the composer's program insert, the piece is "a whimsical re-imagining of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 from the perspective of a sophisticated-but somewhat disoriented-machine." Two excerpts, including the symphony's opening violin theme, are suggested over the course of the ten-minute work. Bold slashing figures are combined with high string harmonics and unusual woodwind sounds that twist and swerve. Low contrabassoon notes momentarily suggest Dukas' clumsy intern-magician. The audience's response was enthusiastic as Dillon was called and recalled to the stage by conductor Kennedy. In conversations with several of the players in a dorm elevator, I learned that they had really enjoyed learning the work.
"Five Minutes from the Life of WAM" (2000) by Alexander Raskatov (b.1953) was also warmly received. It was composed for violinist Gidon Kremer and features solo violin, string orchestra, and percussion (consisting of wind chimes and tuned crotali, which is bowed). Aurelia Duca played with a mellow tone and phrased the lyric passages with grace. Her high harmonics had perfect intonation. The first violins played eerie harmonics close to the bridge and there were some unusual pizzicato passages.
Real Mozart ended the concert in the form of a richly textured performance of an all-orchestral version of the Masonic Funeral Music, K.477.
Recitals featuring opera arias or art songs are becoming an endangered species. Audience polls taken by the Chamber Arts Society in Durham and by the Classical Concert series in Southern Pines had shows of hands approaching 40% against adding singers. The selections on the June 5 Intermezzo Program IV, featuring French arias and art songs, were balm for this Francophile. Grace Episcopal Church was filled with an attentive and discerning audience. In a welcome change, program inserts gave both the French and English texts for all the art songs (but not for the well-known arias).
The sensitive accompanist was Michael Baitzer, whose application of color and phrase matched those of his soloists. Balance was never a problem with the piano lid on its short stick and its dynamics tightly controlled.
Frédéric Antoun, the outstanding Roméo in the Gounod opera, was in top form for four selections from the vast repertory of Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947). His timbre and tone were perfect, and both his diction and his phrasing were models of style. Perhaps the large church tempted him to sing a little too loud. His delivery was direct and without any affectation.
One of the unexpected pleasures of last year's Don Giovanni (repeated this season) was the bold baritone of Keith Phares, who sang the role of Masetto. His warm and even voice and his care for the meaning of the words were welcome in Ravel's Don Quichotte a Dulcinée and the ribald Chansons Gaillardes of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). His subtle acting skill, loosely leaning into the piano and affecting a slight vacant air, brought out the humor in drinking songs by both composers. Those music lovers who know only Poulenc's religious choral works may have been shocked by the text of "L'offrande," especially considering the venue.
Another outstanding singer from Don Giovanni was the vivacious soprano Monica Yunus, a memorable Zerlina. Her portion of the recital was a masterclass about how singing art songs differs from singing arias. She modulated and scaled the size of her bright and focused voice and used subtle dynamic shadings as she sang the six songs of Debussy's Ariettes oubliées. Her application of vocal color was most refined.
Turning to a gem from French opera, Yunus used her full vocal strength as needed in "Adieu notre petite table" from Jules Massenet's Manon. She fully conveyed Manon being torn between her insatiable lust for riches and her memories of true love with De Grieux. Her performance was simply superb.
One of the two greatest duets for tenor and baritone ended the concert on a high note. Antoun and Phares reveled in the perfectly matched unisons of "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs des Perles. The resplendent tenor of Antoun was the perfect foil for Phares' rich warm lower voice, and when they melded during the duet the listener's heart soared.