NOVA Chamber Series: Echoes of Utah @ Libby Gardner Hall 03.17

Posted March 22, 2013 in

Photo: Mikel Covey

Tchaikovsky's Pezzo capriccioso for Cello and Piano, opus 62 is a showoff piece. The name indicates a single movement meant to be played in a free, even capricious style. In contrast to the lighthearted quality so nominally suggested, it is in part, a rather somber piece. The Harlem String Quartet cellist, Matthew Zalkind, recently played it in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky competition. Playing it that day, he kept his eyes closed throughout the performance, which verified the affection and thoughtfulness he brought to this alternately elementary and formidable quantity. The music flows between a short melody and variations and sections of very technical explorations of ecstatic feeling played at the very highest points of the cello's range. Tchaikovsky wrote this piece in a hard emotional style, inspired by his feelings of despair at the impending death from syphilis of his friend Nikolay Kondratyev. Showy and virtuoso, it opened today's show, a welcome to our very agreeable afternoon of fun music, rather than as it probably is most often heard, as a final showy blaze.

Miguel Chuaqui's Confabulario for Wind Quintet had its world premiere that day, played by members of the Utah Symphony. Miguel Chuaqui is a prolific and celebrated composer who just happens to one of the big stars of the University Of Utah's School of Music faculty. His piece, accompanied by a lengthy explanation of its origins and meanings in the program notes, is an illustration in music of his family's arguments and debates over many year's Sunday dinners in Santiago, Chile. It's about family and politics, ideas, harmony and dissonance, in and out of time and key. Just before the performers took the stage, Mr. Chauqui made a brief appearance before the audience to introduce the piece and explained somewhat apologetically that he "keeps hoping to write music which is easy to play, but unfortunately hasn't done that yet." The Confabulario (a word he confesses he made up) sounded altogether accessible, with a driving, almost marching rhythm, and themes which were identifiable and quite pleasant. It may be that this is difficult to play, but it is easy to listen to! The second movement bore a strong resemblance to the first, even repeating, pointedly, some of the first movement’s melodies, as echo, or as points which will not subside in conversations over time. The audience seemed quite pleased with the music, applauding for three curtain calls, but still everybody kept their seats rather than standing, which I think would have been appropriate. I look forward to hearing more of this talented composer's pieces in future concerts, or even on the ipod.

Celena Shafer, who is as great a soprano as the world currently has, happens to live in Utah, and was generous to perform for us two totally rewarding works for the show today. Her, no doubt, very thick scrapbook of achievements includes many rare memories and signal honors: resoundingly positive reviews in the New York Times and many other papers, concerts played with many of the world's important opera companies and conductors, and a who's who of the great opera roles. In the performance that day, one got a really clear demonstration of why her admirers adore her so very much. She has a tone that is a little dumbfounding, and singing in Russian or French, her accent and pronunciation felt impeccable. She has a dramatic presence and commitment to the music, which is total.

Three Arias from the Stravinsky opera "The Nightingale" opened with Jason Hardink alone at the piano. Confused, we watched as he played what sounded like a little overture, and then the introductory music, onomatopoeically sounding of birds twittering, when singing came over the room like the first rays of light at dawn. A surprise for those of us sitting in the front rows, Ms. Shafer came from behind, from the stage right entrance, pacing slowly up the aisle to the stage. In the space of the three shortish arias she sang the end of the first, the second and the beginning of the third from the stage, taking in the room around her as if possessed by a madness in the words. And then, as before, she quietly escaped the stage, but this time stage left. The whole thing just kind of flew by. I'm pretty sure my mouth was open and my eyes were fixed the whole time A good idea well executed, and though I didn't love the music per se, I liked the package very much.

The five selected songs for Soprano and Piano from Faure, I did love––outright. With a slightly racy and very direct libretto, these are love songs of the first water, and they were sung with a drama and knowingness which spoke right past my non-existent French. Several times between the songs, Ms. Schafer leaned against the piano, clearly reloading for what was each time a concentrated and ecstatic performance. Really, there is nowhere to hide on a bright stage, and the singing and acting here was magnetic and without flaw. This was my favorite bit of the program. This show was like a double birthday present–– both learning about Faure's songs, and hearing them performed so beautifully.

The show ended with the classical musical equivalent of fireworks.

Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, opus 70, does all the Russian sounding things you want. Really, I wanted to stand up and shake my fists in affirmation. There is a reason the Russians dance such ecstatic and painful looking dances, the music is totally intoxicating. Pretty much each movement has a totally tasty wind-up ending to make sure the audience springs from their seats at the end. Tchaikovsky is so good at this kind of thing, it might not be wrong to credit him with the invention of Stadium Rock, as the desired effect and the outcome are essentially the same. In fact, at the end of the first movement, I was so exhilarated I was ready to leap forward to applaud. The double trio of violins, violas and cellos made satisfying work of this totally fun music. The audience and I ate it up and would gladly have taken seconds. Visit the NOVA Chamber Music Series website for more information on the next concert.

Photo: Mikel Covey