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There's little ostentation in the work of artists based at our regional institutions of higher learning - or those who use their facilities - and there's not a lot of pretense as far as our fine community orchestras and chamber groups are concerned, either. Two recent programs, both (alas) poorly attended, illustrate these points admirably - and that doesn't mean the events lacked interest or polish.
On September 16, in Meredith's Carswell Concert Hall, mezzo-soprano Dorrie Casey, actress Meredith Sause, and pianist Deborah Coclanis presented "Vincent," an entertainment based on the life and work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, "comprised" - the program noted - "from Millay's poetry, plays, letters, [&] librettos, and including songs set to Millay poems by Leslie Adams, Arthur Bliss, John Duke, Melissa Shiflett & Deems Taylor." That's a mouthful, but the presentation - which involved some singing, some acting, and some carrying on by all participants - was at once informative and engaging from start to finish. The performers are known entities hereabouts. Casey was Hansel in one of Capital Opera's performances last season; her singing - and acting - have been previously cited in CVNC and Robert's Reviews; and she's a published writer. This is the first notice of Sause in CVNC per se, but she has worked with many companies covered by our theatre group. And Coclanis is a superb pianist, best known for her long service as accompanist of Women's Voices Chorus - but she's been cited in Robert's Reviews , too. Put 'em all together in a themed program that has been evolving over a long period of time - it's been done in Maine, Millay's birthplace, and will be given there again on 9/23 - and the results were, perhaps predictably, bracing. It wasn't your typical recital, although there was a lot of music. Of chief interest were a song (or aria) and a tune reduced from orchestra to piano, both from Deems Taylor's The King's Henchmen , for which Millay wrote the libretto. Taylor, the subject of a fine recent biography by James A. Pegolotti, is an interesting character in his own right, of course - in addition to his compositions, he appeared in Fantasia and hosted many broadcasts, back when orchestral and other "classical" music was all the rage. That said, the songs by the other composers (cited above), while generally somber, were beautiful, too, and they were completely in keeping with the story of the poet's life, as it unfolded. Sause made a convincing protagonist, drawing her audience into Millay's world. Casey sang radiantly and projected well, too; the printed program might have been enhanced by including the texts, but the words were mostly clear. Coclanis played wonderfully and supportively, never swamping the others, whether accompanying or providing - for want of a better term - background music. With one exception, the eight songs (and a mini-play) were woven together with narration, all but one line of which came from the poet herself. The sum total was a beautifully integrated show to which I pay the highest compliment - I'd welcome the chance to see and hear it again. Bravo!
On September 18 there was another "entertainment" called "The Other Side of the Clouds," with music, provided by a chamber ensemble from the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and other artists. The venue was Meredith's Jones Auditorium, the occasion was a benefit for the Rex Cancer Angel Fund, and survivors got a break on the admission price. I've put "entertainment" in quotes because it was a generally somber and reflective evening, in keeping with the purpose of the benefit. It was also the first of six concerts this season by various RSO groups, performing as "The Free Spirits Ensemble" and visitors. Maestro Alan Neilson, Music Director of the RSO (which presents three full orchestra concerts and three family programs this year, too), introduced the performance. "The Journey," the first half of the program, which featured soprano Teresa Fernandez, flutist Patty Angevine, clarinetist Jim Williams, violinists Izabela Cohen and Yang Xi, violist Michael Castelo, cellist Jane Salemson, bassist Dan Zehr, narrator Tony Pender, actress and dancer Quinn Czejkowski, dancer Amy Cooke (with choreography by Karen Edwards), and pianist/composer and event organizer Lanette Lind. Part I involved poetry by the late Matthew Stepanek and other readings and narration that wove together reflective and at times inspiring music by Piazzolla, Katherine Hoover (a lovely piece for alto flute, played from the balcony in the darkened hall), Richard Faith, Bernstein, and Consuelo Velazquez. (A recorded excerpt from Richard Wernick's Kaddish Requiem was used for the main dance number.) The musicians were grouped on the left of the stage, leaving room for the dancing and some walking about by the narrator, the young Quinn Czejkowski, and Fernandez, when she sang. The performances featured some outstanding solos and were at consistently high levels, and the music must surely have comforted those who have suffered or suffered through the suffering and loss of others.
A brief intermission allowed for silent bidding on several items, part of the benefit program.
Part II was a recital that involved various artists in various works - Williams and Lind in an arrangement of Gershwin's Three Preludes; Yang and Lind in Dello Joio's surprisingly complex Variations and Capriccio; Angevine, Williams, Yang, Salemson, and Lind in a revival of the latter's compelling Four Unknown Dances ; and, for the grand finale, works by Enrique Mora and Jose Pablo Moncayo for (or arranged for) string quintet. Throughout, the playing was polished and infectious, and the tiny crowd clearly enjoyed and savored the experience.
It was a long and generous program - generous perhaps to a fault, since by the time it was over, Meredith security had closed and locked the Faircloth Street gate. Sometimes less is more. Themed programs like this one and the Millay evening described above are appealing - and bring in people not often encountered at (or in) conventional concerts and recitals - but here's hoping that most of this season's musical offerings will center on music.