Sonorous, elegant & radiant
GCC chorus Wednesday; Ensemble Schumann Sunday
“In the next world, I shan’t be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.”
— Ralph Vaughan Williams
A nice way to get acquainted with our own Greenfield Community College Chorus is to sit in on its traditional season-starting mini-concert at the Midweek Music Series of All Souls Church in Greenfield, Oct. 16, from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m.
The theme is “British choral music,” with the chorus under the direction of Margery Heins, soloists drawn from the ensemble, and Marilyn Berthelette accompanying.
A preview of a longer program to be given later in the semester, the British fare includes sacred and secular choral music from medieval times to the present, including folk songs from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, madrigals by Bateson and Morley, and a variety of works by Byrd, Sullivan, Vaughan Williams, and Rutter.
British or, more precisely, English choral music occupies a universe unto itself — seamlessly sonorous, elegant and lit by an inner radiance. Though often sober, it belies the well-concealed passion lying beneath the restrained veneer of the English temperament. However, the lusty choral music of the Welsh, in particular, can in no way be described as restrained, nor can that of the ever-feisty Irish. As to the Scottish, I have to hold my tongue.
But as for the English: no matter how much emotional a fire may be brewing in the heart, there must, after all, at least be the appearance of decorum, propriety and self-control. However, if the composer is truly inspired as, say, the great Ralph Vaughan Williams so often was, and he’s at the top of his musical game, there comes a point at which self-control and its august brethren give way to sheer unabashed splendor and magnificence.
Take Vaughan Williams’ four-part choral setting of the exquisite Scottish folksong “Loch Lomond,” which has a triangulate of beauty going for it. First, its achingly poignant lyrics: A lover and his or her beloved parted by fate and looking back on a once blissful terrain — “the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond” (Lomond Lake) — knowing they will never meet again. Second, a soul-shearing melody that comes not out of some ivory-tower composer’s fancy pen, but from the depths of the human heart. Third, a slowly brewing, heaving, finally inconsolably bereaving tapestry of harmonies and countermelodies born out of Vaughan Williams’ quietly passionate adoration of the land and its people.
Among the chorus’ contemporary offerings is English composer John Rutter’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” a setting from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Like much of Rutter’s music, it goes down easily, without so much as a flinch of 20th-century friction. Carol-like in its cool and virginal lyricism, the piece comes and goes with a dreamlike flow, a crystalline piano filigree decorating the airspace around the sopranos, all in unison, eventually ushering in a soft cushion of altos, tenors and basses.
Rutter has always been a master of the light touch, seldom if ever burdening his listeners with excessive or bombastic onslaughts of sound, and so he has excelled especially in the realm of miniatures and chaste contemporary takeoffs on traditional forms, particularly carols. When he does choose to “go big,” as in heftier parts of his “Requiem” and “Magnificat,” the results, while never unpleasant in the least, are less memorable and sometimes forced. But there is no failure in this penchant for economy. Satie and, in many of his works, the imperishable Chopin, were superb miniaturists. So was the skillful and super-successful 20th-century American composer of light classics Leroy Anderson. Almost none of his many hits ever exceeds four minutes long, with many coming in at between two and three minutes. In the music of all three one would be hard put to find examples of “padding” or “stuffing” — just pure, distilled-down gold.
Heins will talk to the audience about the program and the music.
The full performance of “British Choral Music” will be given Sunday, Nov. 10, at 4 p.m. in The Sloan Theater, located in the main building at Greenfield Community College. This concert will feature additional music by Purcell, Arne, and Stanford. Also in the program is Britten’s playful “Psalm 150” with instruments, which will celebrate the composer’s 100th birthday, and “O No, John” from “A Fancy of Folk Songs” by contemporary composer Cecilia McDowall.
For more information about the fall concerts and/or about the Greenfield Community College Chorus, call at 413-775-1171.
Ensemble Schumann Sunday
The Brick Church Music Series will be kicking into gear on Sunday, Oct. 13, at 3 p.m., at The First Church of Deerfield, 71 Old Main St., Deerfield, with a performance by Ensemble Schumann, which includes Sally Pinkas, piano, Steve Larson, viola, and Tom Gallant, oboe. This will be a rare opportunity to see this trio combination, to be sure. The group will be performing works by Mozart, Saint-Saens, Max Bruch, Hermann Reutter, and Robert Kahn.
Of the three, I have had an opportunity to witness Pinkas in concert, and a redoubtable force she is, plunging herself into both the keyboard and the music with unfettered abandon. For her passionate artistry alone I would seek to be at this concert.
Having shared that, I offer a recent chat with Gallant:
JM: How did you three get together?
TG: We played together in various groups and all sorts of configurations in groups with other players. And, then we thought, ‘We should be a group,’ because we had such a good time together.
JM: And are you performing music which was originally written for this combination of instruments or are these arrangements after the fact? I wouldn’t imagine there’s that much literature for such a rare configuration of instruments.
TG: Well, it’s not like a string quartet, where you have hundreds of choices you can choose from; the Mozart was originally for clarinet, but he also decided it could be oboe. He was flexible with the instrumentation.
JM: So what do you do when the music “goes farther south” (lower than) you can go with the oboe? Just bring it up the octave?
TG: I think 99.9 percent of it is in the perfect range for the oboe. We like the combination of colors in the ensemble. You have the kind of strident sound of the oboe, with the viola, which is more moody and dark, and then the piano. It’s an interesting combination.
JM: What are you doing by Saint-Saens?
TG: We’re doing the oboe sonata. He wrote quite a few works with winds and piano, all for his friends and other miscellaneous wind pieces, but some of the other stuff is, ah ... fluffy (laughs). But this one’s not, this one works.
JM: I’m struck by several — three or four pieces — of Saint-Saens which are flawlessly beautiful, but horrified at how much isn’t particularly relevant or memorable.
TG: Yes, you’re absolutely right.
JM: And, as a composer, I’m always dumbfounded as to how that can happen, that someone with such deep skills could have such a fitful connection with the Muses.
TG: I know, I know!
The concert is a fundraiser for the church with a suggested donation of $10 at the door and a reception following the concert. For further information, call Jean Pitman Turner at 774-2657.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.