Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker
SoHarmoniums , Elizabeth McKinney Núñez, director
Nancy Menk, guest conductor
Gwyneth Walker, composer-in-residence
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
November 29, 2014

 

SoHarmoniums

SoHarmoniums

On November 29, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a concert entitled With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker. There was a festive mood in the air as the audience members happily saluted their favorites. I was seated next to a group of very enthusiastic alumnae from Saint Mary’s Women’s College in Indiana, each of whom had a sleigh bell to ring with delight when the members of that school’s choir took to the stage. “The Bells of Saint Mary’s, you know,” one of these ladies quipped to me. It was yet another reminder about the DCINY experience – joy abounding for performers and audience members. One might think that this listener, a veteran DCINY concert attendee, would be jaded about this, but it still delights me, and I suspect it always will.

The first half showcased the talents of New York’s own SoHarmoniums, and the second featured the music of the well-loved Gwyneth Walker, with chorus members from Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Canberra, Australia. It was a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season.

 With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker

With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker

SoHo based group SoHarmoniums took to the stage for the first half. Led by Elizabeth McKinney Núñez, this fifty- member women’s ensemble joined with the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, and proved to be a well-prepared ensemble that delivered excellent performances. Opening with The Tree of Peace, adapted from the poem “O Brother Man” by John Greenleaf Whittier, the tone was set- this was not to be a “glee club” performance. It was full of import, well-controlled harmonies, and tight balance. This song was followed by a polished rendering of “O Lovely Peace” from George Frideric Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. The next work, Garland, featuring four poems of Emily Dickinson (Is Heaven a physician?, Crumbling is not an instant’s act, We cover thee, and The life we have is very great), was an orchestration by Jim Papoulis of an original composition by Mark Adamo. The essence of Dickinson’s poetry was captured in many ways – there is at times an otherworldly feel, at other times hectic and harried, and often just morose; I believe, however, that this large-scale idea is less well-suited to her poetry than the original scoring. The sparseness of the poetry cries out for a similar approach. The performance, though, was truly exceptional.

 

After this, we heard the song South Sámi People (Åarjel Saemieh), by Frode Fjellheim (b. 1959), whose work has gained interest largely based on his work “Vuelie”, which is the title song for Frozen, the Disney mega-blockbuster. This piece is based on the Sámi style of yoik, an ancient chanting tradition. It is thought that there are fewer than two hundred people who still speak South Sámi today. The music has a primitive, tribal feeling, with an infectious rhythmic quality. It was an effective and clever antidote to the Dickinson work. To end the half, the SoHarmoniums let loose in an unabashedly fun-filled Joy to the World/Joyful, Joyful, which can be simply described as a “Joy to the World” and “Ode to Joy” mash-up. It was a sure-fire crowd pleaser and a happy ending that won the hearts of the audience.

 

 With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker

With Grace: The Music of Gwyneth Walker

After intermission, conductor Nancy Menk took to the podium to lead in a selection of works by American composer Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947). She reinforced my already favorable opinion of her work by her strongly focused approach. Ms. Menk runs a tight ship, and the results bear this out in fine performances.

Opening the half was I Thank You God, using text from E.E, Cummings. It was surprisingly weighty to me, perhaps based on my over-exposure to Cummings’s lighter works. At any rate, I was completely won over by the end. It was a great start to the half, and it gave this listener a healthy appreciation for Ms. Walker the composer.

Songs for Women’s Voices No. 1-6, from the 1992 choral cycle of the same name, followed. The texts for these songs comes from the poetry of May Swenson (1913-1989). Before each song, each poem was recited from the stage. The narrator was DCINY’s own Andrea Macy, who projected the various qualities of the poems, some sassy, some serene, others searching for meaning, with a strong dramatic sense, strong and confident, but never resorting to over-emoting or “hamming it up”. These are the works of a skilled composer, rich in melodic invention, without being trite or derivative. It is easy to understand Ms. Walker’s popularity when one hears a cycle like this. Highlights for this listener were the second song “Mornings Innocent” with its “natural”, pastoral qualities, the interweaving of voices in “The Name is Changeless [God]”, and the resigned feeling that remained unresolved on “In Autumn” [I Will Lie Down].

It was a good programming to follow with the light, happy feelings in This Train. Crossing the Bar was a simple, poignant, “heart-on-sleeve” piece that was magical. Ms. Walker came to the stage at the end of the piece to the cheers of the audience.

SoHarmoniums

SoHarmoniums

SoHarmomiums joined with the Distinguished Concerts Singers International in a spirited performance of How Can I Keep From Singing? to end the night with a bang. The audience loved it and jumped to their feet to salute the performers, and Ms. Walker, who returned to the stage once more to collect her richly deserved accolades from the appreciative audience. It was a fitting close to a most enjoyable evening.

 


Bluegrass 57@7: The Music of Pepper Choplin, Joseph M. Martin, and Carol Barnett (DCINY) in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY)
Bluegrass 57@7: The Music of Pepper Choplin, Joseph M. Martin, and Carol Barnett
Distinguished Concerts Singers International, Monroe Crossing, Guest Artists
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall; New York, NY
February 18, 2013
 
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY): Photo credit: DCINY Production/Hiroyuki Ito

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) : Photo credit: DCINY Production/Hiroyuki Ito

 

In a concert with the title “Bluegrass 57@7” (the 57 referring to 57th Street, the location of Carnegie Hall, and the 7 referring to the 7:00PM start time), Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a program dedicated to the Bluegrass genre and its various sub-genres.  Featuring Bluegrass quintet Monroe Crossing, it had the makings of an interesting and educational evening.

The first half featured the vocal music of composers Pepper Choplin and Joseph M. Martin, with the able support of Monroe Crossing. I do believe the most accurate description of the selections presented would be Bluegrass Gospel. The music was mostly joyful and almost always tonally consonant. Indeed, no dodecaphonists were harmed in the making of this music.  Each composer conducted his own works. Highlights of Mr. Choplin’s pieces were the anthem-like “Circle of Love”, featuring the talented vocalist Emily Drennan, and the electrically-charged energy of “Joy on the Mountain”.  Mr. Martin’s “Coming Home” with soloist Sue Martin’s emotional vocals was touching. Then the ebullient Martin waved Choplin back to the stage, handing him the conductor’s baton as he took to the piano for his own “Great, Great Morning.” It had the feeling of a revival meeting. It brought the first half to an exuberant close.

The second half opened with selections from Monroe Crossing.  Monroe Crossing takes its name as homage to the “father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe and the fact that his music was the common thread that brought the group together (“we crossed paths through the music of Bill Monroe”). Mandolin player Matt Thompson regaled the audience with stories about the group and its members with both humor and humility. in what was probably a well-rehearsed part of Monroe Crossing’s regular performances.  All showmanship and shtick aside, when this ensemble got down to the business of playing, they showed themselves to be not only committed to the art of Bluegrass, but also possessing some serious “chops” as well. The energy was infectious as they played four signature works.  All four pieces were crowd pleasers, but the last called “Bullet Train” was just pure fun from start to finish, and the audience roared its approval.

The final work on the program, Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, was composed with the talents of Monroe Crossing in mind. Matt Thompson told the audience about the challenges Monroe Crossing faced when first receiving their parts.  Not all Bluegrass musicians read notated music, as the art of Bluegrass is largely improvisatory, so this “jumble of dots” was a challenge that was overcome by having each player learn his part by listening to a recorded version. After much hard work, the parts were mastered, and Monroe Crossing has performed this work about “40 times”, according to Thompson. Composer Carol Barnett stated, “My highest hope is that listeners coming from one tradition, classical or bluegrass (and perhaps dubious about the other), might discover something new and wonderful in the combination”. It was an interesting thought and a worthy goal, but one also might feel that neither classical nor bluegrass enthusiasts would be fully satisfied by the end result.  The work is quite moving in sections, and the addition of Monroe Crossing added color, but it is open to debate how much “Bluegrass” was present amid some of the more sophisticated rhythms. Marisha Chamberlain’s libretto is quite provocative in sections, including an unconventional Credo, the thinly veiled 9/11/01 reference in the third verse of the ballad, and the feminization of God in the Conclusion. Conductor Nancy Menk was charged with the challenge of bringing this interesting concept to life, which she did with marked ability. Any reservations I might have had were of no concern to the audience, who responded with a prolonged standing ovation. The Gloria was repeated as an encore to the delight of the audience.  Ms. Barnett and Ms. Chamberlain joined the conductor on stage for bows.