by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the third in its “Five Fridays” series of chamber music recitals Feb. 20. In collaboration with Astral Artists, the church presented soprano Kathryn Guthrie, bass-baritone Adam Fry and pianist Andrew Hauze in a varied musical survey of personal relationships seen and heard within the context of the developing stages of life.
The recital’s concept worked better in theory than it did in performance, mainly because the program seemed to have been stitched together based more on the lyrics than on the music. The product was a roster of pieces divided into four sections that featured within each group music of such diverse periods, styles, languages and states-of-mind. Only rarely could one discern any identifiable connection from one selection to the next.
The late Duke Ellington once remarked that there were only two kinds of music – good and bad. I couldn’t agree more. All the same, even when all the chosen pieces are good, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to work well together. The overall result Friday evening was a series of individual high points that weren’t necessarily placed next to or even nearby songs of equal quality or songs that received equally impressive readings.
Among the most convincing renditions were those given “Vienna, City of My Dreams,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “I’ll Be Here” and “Mamie” featuring Guthrie, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” “Song of Black Max” and “Songs of Travel” featuring Fry, and “The Song That Goes Like This” featuring both singers. Both vocalists were at their interpretive best when they entered the world of the lyrics by channeling themselves into that world. Technically they consistently projected their interpretations of that world through carefully articulated diction and imaginatively modulated tones. Throughout the entire recital, pianist Hauze played superbly. He conjured up entire orchestras of sound from the church’s vintage Steinway while never failing to offer strong yet sensitive support.
The next installment of “Five Fridays” is scheduled for April 10 and will feature violinist Luosha Fang, violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Gabriel Cabezas. Visit www.fivefridays.org.
Over the past two weekends, the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated St. Valentine’s Day with one concert and highlighted an early 20th century classic in three others. Both programs were successful, although both left much to be reconsidered.
On Saturday, Feb. 14, the Orchestra was conducted by Stephane Deneve, its new principal guest conductor, and was joined by actors from the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre for a series of selections from some of the Bard of Avon’s plays dealing with love. The concert’s entire second half was devoted to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and excerpts from the incidental music Felix Mendelssohn composed for a mid-19th century production of the timeless comedy.
Shakespeare’s concoction is a delightful romp through one romantic misadventure after the next in which the real and unreal worlds come together in a dizzying rapidity. Mendelssohn’s score is a masterpiece of early Romanticism. Both the play and the music sound as fresh today as they did when the playwright and the composer wrote them, and Deneve set the proper tone of whimsical fancy, drawing elegantly transparent playing from the Philadelphians.
The first half, however, was less successful and failed to take advantage of a seminal local connection. Rather than drawing from a raft of different plays – “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Romeo and Juliet” – and a host of composers – Walton, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky – a far more coherent, compelling and contemporary choice would have been the play “Anthony and Cleopatra” and excerpts from Alex North’s score for the 1963 20th Century Fox film, “Cleopatra.”
North was born and raised in Chester, attended Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia, then went on to both the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School of Music before heading west for Hollywood. Once there, he also composed the music for “Spartacus,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Misfits.” For those of us who love the great film scores of so many American movies, it would have been a treat beyond compare to hear one of them performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The modern classic, Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto, was the centerpiece of the set of concerts given in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Feb. 20, 21 and 22. The featured soloist was Gil Shaham, who has been soloing with the Philadelphians since 1988 and who has developed a devoted following. He didn’t disappoint Saturday evening. He invested the Berg’s atonal astringency and harmonic density with an impassioned intensity that soared above the occasionally thick accompanying orchestration. All the same, I would have preferred hearing him in either the Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Miklos Rozsa Violin Concerti. Both were composed for Jascha Heifetz (considered by many to have been the greatest violinist of all times), and both would have showed of Shaham’s prodigious talents far more memorably than did the Berg.
Robert Spano will guest conduct the orchestra Feb. 26-28 in its first performances of Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto with Benjamin Beilman as soloist. The program also includes Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral,” Debussy’s “Iberia”and Stokowski’s orchestration of his “Sunken Cathedral.”