Chamber Charms and Profound Piccolo

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Saturday’s busy classical concert schedule had me bouncing all over town to catch three different events, the last of which (Westminster Choir) got its own glowing review. But there’s only time to blog briefly about the other two: another winning chamber event at Dock Street, plus a sonorous go at Johannes Brahms’ beloved German Requiem. 

The Chamber VI program was yet another winner, featuring two more (sigh!) sweet and emotionally potent performances from superstar soprano Dawn Upshaw. She began the program with regular series pianist Stephen Prustman’s stylistically true arrangements of four lovely songs by 16th century Englishman John Dowland. Then, at program’s end, she sang "Lua Descolorida," a short, mournful piece by one of today’s hottest composers, Osvaldo Golijov. She described it as “The saddest song ever written in the key of C Major,” and, indeed, her wrenching rendition of it (also the Dowland pieces) made me want to cry. Trust me, this lady can do that to you in a heartbeat. The trusty St. Lawrence String Quartet backed her up nicely in both works.

In between came two entirely different chamber gems. The first was composer-in-residence Jonathan Berger’s Bridal Canopy for string quartet, a grief-stricken and often searing “requiem” of sorts for the Jewish people lost during the century just past. “It’s the closest a string quartet will ever come to sounding like a buzz-saw,” Berger told us, and, for sure, the music’s occasional moments of shrieking violence conveyed that sonic impression, and more. No, you couldn’t whistle the tunes, but the work’s stark emotional intensity — and the SLSQ's blazing interpretation — still bowled most of the crowd over, judging from their uncontrived applause. The other work couldn’t have been more different: Mozart’s sweet and frothy two-movement Flute Quartet in G, superbly played by flute sorceress Tara Helen O’Connor and a complement of the series' regular strings players. This piece also marked the return to Spoleto of Barry Schiffman, who used to play second violin with the SLSQ; here he was on viola.

From thence, a mad dash got me to Grace Church just in time for what was perhaps Piccolo Spoleto’s biggest concert of its “Spotlight on the Art of Choral Music” series. Dr. Scott Bennett led a deep and affecting account of Johannes Brahms’ immortal German Requiem, featuring soloists Esther Williams (soprano) and Art Bumgardner (baritone), joining the St. Gregory Choir (and friends) plus the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Orchestra. Many consider this to be the tenderest and most comforting requiem ever written. The music has long been a part of my personal mourning ritual whenever I lose a loved one, and I’ve lately been giving CDs of it to bereaved friends as a sort of musical “sympathy card.” Certainly, no drippy doggerel on frilly parchment could even come close to matching it.

After I got to the following WC concert, I thought to myself: how lucky can a guy get, experiencing two distinctly different kinds of choral heaven in the same afternoon?    

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