by Michael Caruso
Lyric Fest and Variant 6 joined forces last weekend for two performances of a program entitled “Songs from the Tundra.” The first concert was given Saturday afternoon, Jan. 12, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill; the reprise was heard Sunday afternoon in the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (Church of the Savior) in West Philadelphia.
Chestnut Hill pianist Laura Ward and East Falls mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis founded Lyric Fest in 2003 and have overseen its growth into one of Greater Philadelphia’s most imaginative and influential musical ensembles. Over the course of those 15 seasons, Lyric Fest has not only brought underappreciated parts of the vocal/instrumental repertoire to countless established and new audiences, but it has educated those audiences to the particular way in which the notes of vocal music serve the texts which inspired them.
Variant 6 is a vocal sextet that directs the talents of its singers to performing contemporary vocal music that often finds its inspirations from music composed many centuries ago. Its members are sopranos Jessica Beebe and Rebecca Myers, mezzo Elisa Sutherland, tenor Steven Bradshaw, baritone Robert Eisentrout (substituting for tenor James Reese) and bass Daniel Schwartz. Local music lovers might recall that Beebe and Myers were the soprano soloists in Choral Arts Philadelphia’s performance of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” New Year’s Eve afternoon in St. Clement’s Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic) Church.
Ward and DuPlantis constructed the weekend’s program around the concept of how music functions in the cold climate of the Nordic countries, here broadly defined as including Sweden, Iceland, Germany, Finland, Norway, Poland, Latvia, Denmark and Russia.
The pieces were divided in sections under titles such as “Prayer,” “Forest,” “Home,” “Exile,” “Lover,” “Nightingale,” “Maria,” “Dream” and “Music.” Within those sections, the three vocalists of Lyric Fest — soprano Maeve Hoglund, mezzo Maren Montalbano and bass Cody Muller — accompanied by Ward divided the roster with Variant 6, which sang unaccompanied.
Those songs sung by Variant 6 proved to be the concert’s most challenging and, ultimately, most rewarding. “Heyr Imma smiour” (Hear, maker of the heavens), an Icelandic hymn arranged by James Reese, opened the program with the chilly textures of its homeland sending a tingle down the listener’s spine.
Two scores by the Englishman Gabriel Jackson, “Longing for Homeland” and “Earth is pressing against us,” focused on Latvia and Palestine, respectively. They offered intensely focused lines of incredibly close harmonies that suspended harmonic resolutions until the wait was almost painful, making those resolutions all the more rewarding. Janis Zalitis’ “Kad Nakts” (When night) proved to be a poem of sweet gentility that concluded with a hushed finale sung with an immaculately smooth blend between the six voices, forging a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Danish composer Per Norgard’s “Ut Rosa” (Like a Rose) recalled strands of medieval plainsong that miraculously came together at its conclusion in tonal harmonies. The dissonances in the Latvian composer Georgs Pelecis’ “Creed; Since by Death He Conquered Death” were sharp yet resolved soothingly. And Icelander Anna Thorvalsdottir’s “Heyr pu oss himnum” (Hear us in heaven) was voiced in the angular lines of ancient music while the harmonies they produced were plush and reverential.
The six vocalists of Variant 6 performed all these works with a level of technical perfection and interpretive integrity that was stunning. The ensemble managed the contradictory feat of enabling the listener to hear each of the individual voices yet take them in as a unified choral instrument, flawless and expressive.
The singing of Lyric Fest soprano Maeve Hoglund was no less impressive. Her clear tone, commanding range, broad palette of dynamics, controlled vibrato, crisp diction and total immersion into not just the external meaning of the songs’ texts but its internal motivation enabled her interpretations to ring with beauty and truth. She was heard to particular advantage in Hugo Emil Alfven’s “Skogen sover” (The Forest Sleeps), Jean Sibelius’ “Demanten pa Marssnon” (The diamond on the March snow) and “Var det en Drom” (Was it a dream), Carol Szymanowski’s “Slowik” (The Nightingale), Gunnar Fredrik de Fumerie’s “Nar du sluter mina ogon” (When you close my eyes), and most especially in the closing “Tonerna” (Tones) by Carl Sjorberg.
And, of course, Laura Ward was the concert’s paramount musician: evoking a universe of colors, both towering and shimmering, from her Steinway & Sons grand piano.
Speaking of admirable local pianists, West Mt. Airy’s Marja Kaisla presented an “Evening of Masterpieces by Frederic Chopin” Saturday, Jan. 12, at Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum. The Finnish-born virtuoso played the Polish master’s “Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major,” Opus 47; “Polonaise in C-sharp minor,” Opus 26, no. 1; “Polonaise Fantasy in A-flat major,” Opus 61; and the “Sonata No. 3 in B minor,” Opus 58. The recital drew an audience that packed Woodmere’s rotunda.
Kaisla’s performance was a triumph of stylistic mastery. She projected Chopin’s long narrative line of development in the “Ballade,” caught the martial rhythms of the “Polonaise,” delved into the melodic and harmonic intricacies of the “Polonaise Fantasy,” and laid out the broad classical structure of the “Sonata” as sung romantically by the composer.
Throughout all four scores, Kaisla elicited a gorgeously rounded tone from Woodmere’s Kawai grand piano. She voiced the melodic lines over their complex accompaniments with an expert hand for dynamic contrasts. Her use of rubato — that give-and-take of tempo so integral to Chopin’s music — was a perfect example of unaffected lyricism. And she drove the dramatic passages of each work to their convincing finales.
Chopin may not have been the greatest composer who ever wrote for the piano. Ludwig van Beethoven probably deserves that title. All the same, Marja Kaisla made a convincing case for Frederic Chopin having been the finest composer of piano music.
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