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Of Fairy Tales and Love Songs

May 13, 2008

Saturday's programming for the Gold Coast Chamber Players was so delightful that it brought smiles to the face of many an attendee. I don't know whether artistic director and violist Pamela Freund-Striplen came up with the concept on her own, but it was pure inspiration to pair Roland Kato's piano quintet arrangement of Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose (Ma Mère l'oye) with William Bolcom's droll Fairy Tales, Eric Whitacre's 5 Hebrew Love Songs, and Robert Schumann's rousing Piano Quintet, Op. 44.
The musical adventure (listen to a recording of the concert) was enhanced by the ensemble's new venue, the easily accessed by auto Acalanes Performing Arts Theater in Lafayette. Some might declare the lobby of the multipurpose theater high school déclassé, and the auditorium a bit short on reverberation time. I myself found the sound extremely clear and direct, with none of the deadness and lifeless highs associated with Herbst Theatre (to name but one example).

Once the air conditioning issue is addressed, so that patrons can be as warm as the music they're hearing, the classical community would be wise to investigate the space as a concert venue.

GCCP's members seem fluid. Besides Freund-Striplen, none of the players on this concert performed at the ensemble's season opener in February. Nonetheless, there was no lack of cohesion or plodding paint-by-numbers approach that would suggest a thrown-together group. It's a shame that only 75 or so people, no doubt including family members of the youthful Acalanes Chamber Singers, came out for the evening. (Note: A recording of the concert is available from GCCP.)
Underpowered Playing of Ravel
The ensemble's take on Ravel was stronger on grace than power. First violinist Mariya Borozina immediately stood out for her fineness of line and sweetness, but rarely spoke in the primary colors listeners hear in orchestral versions of the Mother Goose suite. In the third movement, "Homely Little Girl, Empress of the Chinese Dolls," she managed to sound a bit like a country western fiddler while only minimally underscoring Ravel's chinoiserie.

The high point was the fourth movement, "Conversations of Beauty and the Beast," in which wispy, mysterious, and ultimately magical playing made me feel I was peering through a child's glass globe into a world of delight.

Borozina's blend with Freund-Striplen's occasionally pungent viola, Eric Sung's consistently warm and ingratiating cello (made by Alessando D'espine in Turin ca. 1820), and Ken Miller's self-effacing bass was exemplary. A tip of the proverbial hat to pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi. Playing a six-foot Boston Steinway, Nakagoshi everywhere employed an extremely fluid, sensitively shaded touch that never overpowered the strings.

Before launching into Bolcom's Fairy Tales, Freund-Striplen commented that she had never before played in the "really weird combo" of viola, cello, and bass. She's probably not alone in that respect, judging by the absence of a recording listing on The music for the six pieces, based on favorite fairy tales of Bolcom's friends, is witty and droll, with a dark and lumbering "Silly March I & II," some eerie high tones from the viola, a strong and lurking bass in "The Frog Prince" (complete with ribbet-ribbet sounds), and other simulated effects. High art or light art, it's the kind of music we need more of.
Musical Enigma Wrapped in Hebrew
Given the lamentable omission of both translations and program notes, there's no way to know the details of Whitacre's beautiful 5 Hebrew Love Songs (to poems by his wife, high soprano Hila Plitmann). What was apparent was the fine, meaty tone of second violinist Candace Guirao, who, in her first appearance of the evening, had a rare opportunity to sing out alone.

Although conductor Bruce Lengacher's young singers occasionally faltered on entrances, the sopranos sang angelically, with the young men not far behind. Kudos to the unidentified female soloist, soprano Yvette Dickson, for the beautiful voice and expression she brought to "Eyze sheleg!" (What snow!). This song was most special, with fascinating bum-bum-bums sounding like buzzing bees, and some wonderful violin effects. Especially touching and sacred was the final song, "Rakut" (Tenderness), with its heartfelt ending.

After reasonably priced toxic cookies at intermission came the main fare, Robert Schumann's great Piano Quintet, Op. 44. If attention kept being drawn to Nakagoshi's wonderfully sonorous, plangent pianism, this was due to its extreme musicality and warmth, as well as the instrument's ideal resonance. The second movement march wanted more yearning, and the Scherzo more playful scampering (though the ending was fabulous). At least there was consistency, since the final Allegro seemed a bit heavy and plodding.

Although Borozina finally played full out, her tone lacked the singing core and heartfelt vibrancy that Schumann's often-exuberant music demands. The rest of the ensemble performed quite well, even if the performance ultimately failed to scale the heights.

Regardless, such "yes, buts" are no more than passing footnotes to a rewarding evening of fantasy and love. Given the ensemble's promised menu for its June 1 concert — Trout by Schubert and the entire kitchen sink by Martinů — here's hoping more people will make their way to Moraga's St. Mary's College in Contra Costa's Gold Coast.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.