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By all accounts – and there were at least a half dozen of them at her memorial concert – Grace Ann Krumdieck was a beautiful soul who inspired many who knew her. Afflicted with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that almost exclusively strikes girls, Grace died at the end of 2013 at the tender age of 15. So it was altogether fitting that Grace’s mother, Barbara Krumdieck, as director of the Music @ St. Alban’s concert series, chose to program only young and promising musicians for their “Celebrating Grace” tribute. Counting the pre-concert performers, 14 musicians participated in the afternoon celebration, ranging in age from 10 to 19 and playing piano, flute, violin, harp, and organ, plus a 13-year-old vocalist. What they played and sang was also admirably varied – not only pieces by Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Debussy but also works by C. Hubert Parry, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Robert Muczynski, Alberto Ginastera, and Georges Hüe.
I was very impressed by how well the soloists adhered to the letter of the scores, and I was also gratified by how often they captured the spirit. There were no glaring mistakes in the 14 pieces presented at this recital, so parents, teachers, and students could all heave sighs of relief – and none of the music was so thuddingly familiar that it might elicit inward groans of forbearance. Only one piece, “Amazing Grace” sung by Lily Klett, was universally recognizable, and it came loaded with a unique poignancy for this occasion. About half of the pieces were familiar to me, but most of these I’d only heard on recordings, never in live performance, so my sense of discovery – or rediscovery – was as keen as anyone’s.
There was no less delight in the reprises of the works that were most familiar to me. Listening to Hannah Duke playing Debussy’s “Bruyères” or David Carter tackling the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto freshly reminded me that the melodiousness of these works doesn’t automatically emerge when you’ve mastered the notes. Artistry in phrasing, through accenting and varying dynamics as you play, remains elusive for a young apprentice. The simple eloquence that seems so effortless in a master’s performance isn’t as readily achieved as a mistake-free rendition of the score. It only seems easy. Expression was nearer to the mark in the Debussy duets presented by flutist Hannah Dinsmore and harpist Tamar Rowe. Flute phrases from “Arabesque” breathed more naturally into one another as they floated over the unassertive accompaniment, without the disconnected moments that marred “Le Petit Berger.” Carter also did better at the keyboard when he played Schumann’s “Novelletten,” sculpting the melody more skillfully than in the Bach and effectively differentiating the febrile passages from the lyrical ones.
At age 16, Martha Gerdes achieved nearly the same richness of tone as the 19-year-old Dinsmore when she played Georges Hüe’s “Fantaisie for Flute,” accompanied by her elder sister at the keyboard, Clara Gerdes. I couldn’t determine whether it was insufficient arrogance, confidence, or breath control that caused so many of the flutist’s phrases to be clipped at the end, but those were the only blemishes I found. The keyboardist’s excellence occasionally peeped through in her accompaniment but was heard to far better advantage when she retreated to the far wall of the sanctuary and, with her back to the audience, played two pieces on the St. Alban’s pipe organ. There were split-second interruptions in Clara’s rendition of the Allegretto third movement from Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No. 4 as she changed modes with the side buttons, and it was unclear whether it was the soloist or the instrument that was underpowered. If she had played a little faster – or if she had appended the mighty fourth-movement Allegro Maestoso – I might have been more confident that Gerdes was holding back.
All doubts were removed when Gerdes concluded the concert with a stirring account of Bach’s Prelude in D, S.532, a work that first captivated me on vinyl over 30 years ago when the Penguin Guide pointed me towards Volume 5 of Peter Hurford’s complete traversal of the organ works. Suddenly the church organ became a mighty beast as Gerdes captured nearly all the layers of Bach’s masterful composition. That distant bench where Gerdes had sat was an awkward spot to take a bow, but all of the players on the program could use some seasoning in that regard. Of course, such shyness is adorable until you reach a certain age. Most urgently in need of remedial applause acceptance training is the sensational 13-year-old pianist, Florence Liu. She began with an account of Bach’s Sinfonia No. 3, displaying an admirable feel for the miniature’s shifting dynamics and the lilt of its triple rhythm. Then she delivered a helter-skelter account of a piece I’d never heard before, Muczynski’s “Jubilee” from Summer Journal (1964). Though I have no basis for comparison, Liu’s performance was certainly startling. More astonishing was the oft-recorded “Danza del Gaucho Matrero,” the third of Ginastera’s three Danzas Argentinas – an early Op. 2 piece from 1937 played with precocious brio that sounded as fresh as today with its thumping baseline, brooding presto pace, and jagged dynamics. At various points during a whirlwind three minutes, Liu made it rumbling, sparkling, and grand. It might be advisable for the 13-year-old or her parents to send a tape of this performance to NPR as a worthy candidate for Christopher O’Riley’s popular From the Top radio program.
Of course, that audacious move might hinge on whether Liu could endure the agony of being chosen. There was a polite, perfunctory bow when Liu finished, but she basically fled from the stage. As the ovation continued, Krumdieck couldn’t help but ask Liu to stand for another bow, which she reluctantly took from her seat in the back row. Klett, the other 13-year-old on the program, was noticeably more generous with her bows, loosening up perceptibly during her second and third rounds of applause though still noticeably nervous about it. The nerves thankfully disappeared when Klett sang, and there was an endearing purity and simplicity to everything she sang, beginning with Parry’s setting for William Blake’s preface to Milton, “And did those feet?” which the composer appropriately retitled “Jerusalem.” You can get a little more gravitas from the Westminster Abbey Choir if you listen to them singing “these dark Satanic Mills” on their recording from the Royal Wedding and a little more valor when they call for “my Chariot of fire.” But only a little.
Even more apt for this occasion were the consoling strains of “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem with its soothing ending. Aside from the heartfelt tribute delivered by Grace’s father, Richard Krumdieck, echoing the eloquent eulogy he wrote in 2013, the words of the requiem and “Amazing Grace” were the emotional highlights of a somber concert that never lost its spirit of celebration. Whether or not they are ultimately named after her daughter, Krumdieck intends to continue with more concerts showcasing young performers as an integral part of Music @ St. Alban’s programming, perhaps as an annual event. Good idea.