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Your peripatetic critic, having heard Chatham Baroque at The Music House last year, ventured once more to Greenville for a charming and unusual program presented by mezzo Jessie Wright Martin, violinist Selim Giray, and pianist John O'Brien (the latter being the proprietor of the Music House). It is safe to say that I (and most likely, you, Reader) have never had the pleasure of hearing a single work by Australian composer Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984) in concert, let alone a string of five, but Greenville can boast concerts of an erudition rarely found in much larger cultural centers. Unfortunately, neither program nor performers offered information about Sutherland. She was born in Adelaide, and moved with her family to Melbourne at age 4, where she lived for the rest of her long life. She studied piano and composition in her native Australia, and spent two years in Europe in 1923-1925. O'Brien and ensemble offered a set of Six Australian Songs (1963), the Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1957), a Nocturne for violin and piano (1944), Three Songs for Voice and Violin (1926), and "The Gentle Water Bird" (1954), for voice, violin and piano.
Six Australian Songs sets poems by Australian poet Judith Wright (1915-2000). Jessie Wright Martin is Professor of Voice and Director of Opera at Wingate University (located in Wingate, North Carolina, southeast of Charlotte). A mezzo, she has a fairly bright sound, but with a strong vibrato, so that even with clear diction it was not always easy, without the printed text, to follow the argument of the poetry. Musically, she was expressive, and her presentation dramatic. Here, and throughout the program, I was struck by the skill of John O'Brien as a supremely responsive accompanist, with an impressive mastery of the dynamics of his instrument, an amazing Steinway grand from the late 19th century, with a beauty of tone and purity of tuning that was nonpareil – it sounded as if it had just been tuned, and by someone with unmatched skill. Violinist Selim Giray, Professor of Violin at the Wichita State University School of Music (and once a student in the graduate program at ECU) was featured in the next two works – a relatively brief but challenging sonatina, and a berceuse-like nocturne – and proved to have a communicative presence, but with a technique that occasionally seemed a bit off the mark in terms of intonation. This characteristic, added to Martin's vibrato, meant that the set of songs for voice and violin (sans piano) were not always easy to follow tonally. The first half concluded with a work for all three, with a striking metaphysical text by John Shaw Neilson, about learning of the nature of God and grace from a crane. Sutherland's musical language is masterful, striking, original, tonal, but not a bit old-fashioned, occasionally a hint of French style, but basically all her own.
The second half began with a very interesting and equally rare work, a very late set of songs (Op. 154, from 1856) by the virtuoso violinist and composer Louis Spohr (1784-1859), Romantic in style, but with an unusual violin obligato in tandem with the voice. The vocal part is basically unadorned, and straightforward, but the violin, which must have been written with Spohr's own abilities in mind, is excruciatingly difficult and florid, particularly if one considers that it must be subordinated to the vocal part. Martin seemed entirely at home in this literature, with warmth of tone and expression, and a simply lovely ppp in the closing "Abendstille."
After a fascinating period arrangement of Debussy for violin and piano (the "Printemps Paraphrase," arranged from a choral original by Jacques Durand), the evening concluded with three highly emotional late Romantic works, the "Song of the Watchman" by Joaquin Nin, "Violins in the Night" by Saint-Saëns (with an overheated poem by Madame La Comtesse de Noailles), and an opera excerpt from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, in which Martin unleashed her operatic-size voice for the first time. All in all, a scintillating and stimulating musical performance.
I cannot conclude without mentioning that the evening included cool drinks on the porch, pre-concert, a wine-tasting at the interval, and coffee and sweets afterwards, all in the ambience of a beautifully-restored Victorian residence. If you live in Greenville, I hope you are a regular at these events; if you live elsewhere in the eastern part of our state, you owe it to yourself to make the trip down (or up) highway 264 to the Music House.