Tag Archives: Classical Music

Arts

Scene&Heard: The Vocal Firepower of the Lexington Singers

There are plenty of ways to sing that sound interesting. There are, while admittedly fewer, still many ways of singing that sound pretty, or powerful, or pure. There is no way of singing yet invented that can match a fully developed bel canto voice.

Bel Canto, a vocal technique developed in Italy from the sixteenth century onward, is the open and clear sound, usually sung with a quaver in the voice called vibrato, and that’s stereotypical of the opera, and of classical music in general. It takes years for a singer to develop a proper bel canto voice, and singing with it, drawing breath from the diaphragm and propelling to the back of an often massive concert hall, is not just technically demanding but physically exhausting. It’s a way of singing that makes you sweat.

When the young bass-baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, midway through the first act of the oratorio that he sang on Friday night, that exhaustion was beginning to show. He didn’t let it phase him in the slightest. The oratorio—a kind of long vocal work that incorporates orchestra, chorus, and solo voices—was Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, one of the most famous, and famously demanding, examples of the genre.

Reginald Smith, Jr. (publicity photo, from reginaldsmithjr.com).

The Lexington Singers had invited Smith, along with several other soloists and the UK Chorale, another choral group, to join them in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Performing in UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts (like many classical groups in Lexington), the Singers set themselves the challenge of filling up a concert hall that could swallow most bars or clubs without losing half of the seats.

When the Lexington Singer’s Chamber Orchestra joined the vocalists on the stage, the entire scale of the enterprise became hard to ignore—there were over one hundred singers, and nearly fifty instrumentalists, assembled for the sole purpose of creating over two hours worth of almost continuous music. The piece they were set to perform would require nothing less.

Felix Mendelssohn composed Elijah for an 1846 premiere; he died less than a year afterward, at only thirty-eight years of age. The oratorio, therefore, is the closest thing to a mature work that the young composer and former child prodigy left to the world.

Stylistically, Mendelssohn always made a habit of looking back to the delicate and precise music of the Bach and Haydn, as opposed to the radical innovations of contemporaries like Liszt or Wagner. While the early Romantic period that he lived through was in many ways defined by composers challenging the harmonic and structural components of the classical tradition, Mendelssohn would never push the boundaries of what harmony and traditional musical forms could convey—his chords are always clean, and they always lead exactly where you expect them to.

Nevertheless, Elijah strikes a balance between the old and the new of Mendelssohn’s time: while the overture has a formally complicated fugue motion that’s reminiscent of Bach, the thick orchestral textures and propulsive rhythmic intensity of the music point to an unmistakable Beethoven influence on Mendelssohn’s style. Creating those complex forms and textures requires not only a choir that can sing up to eight voice parts at once but a full orchestra to back them up.

Coordinating such a large number of people for a performance is a task that’s almost entirely reserved to the world of classical music (imagine a rock band with more than six or seven members at the most, and you understand why), and classical groups have a unique figure devoted solely to the task of keeping everyone on the same page of the score: the conductor.

Dr. Jefferson Johnson has served as the conductor for the Lexington Singers for many seasons now, and his ability to direct the choir, while formidable, clearly cannot compare to his ability to choose a soloist perfectly suited to the Singers’ performance.

Jefferson Johnson (Photo by © Sally Horowitz)

Smith sang the title role, with a style that can only be described, appropriately enough, as biblical. With a throbbing, richly textured tone that conveyed every ounce of emotion that played across his expressive face, Smith leapt from a roaring castigation of the wayward Israelite King Ahab to a soft, subtle lamentation of the fate of his people, and in a searching, haunting aria, he found his way back to a joyful, soaring vision of a flaming chariot come to take him up to Heaven.

Smith has a voice that is too flexible, too widely developed and able to convey a breadth of emotions to offer easy categorization or comparison. Suffice it to say that he is a singer in impeccable command of an extraordinary talent.

Shockingly, Smith is still considered a rising star in the classical world, not yet fully arrived as a star in his own right. However, if his performance in Elijah is anything to judge by, Smith will be drawing comparisons to premier bass-baritones like Eric Owens before long—and some of those comparisons will be favorable to Smith.

Reginald Smith, Jr. | Photo by Sarah Shaw

The Singers, as a choir, also acquitted themselves well. The piece is noted for its rousing and overpowering choral movements. As the music built to climax after climax, the Singers’ voices bubbled, swelled, and rose like a tsunami to crash over the orchestra, the audience, and the building itself in an exactly controlled roll of passion into passion.

The orchestra itself played with a frenetic energy that clearly fed itself off of the remarkable vocal performances. In particular, first cellist Benjamin Karp managed to play with such a fury that he frayed his bow; he then went on to play a tender accompaniment to one of Smith’s second-half arias.

The other soloists also demonstrated the kind of vocal skill that it takes to perform a piece like Elijah. Contralto Shauntina Phillips enveloped the hall in a low, warm sound, even as the orchestra roiled and churned at full intensity behind her.

Shauntina Phillips | Photo credit: National Association of Teachers of Singing

Soprano Amanda Balltrip pierced through the air with a light but wonderfully intense lilt as she sang, unexpectedly, from the back of the hall. Likewise, soprano Katherine Olson set her voice to fly above the assembled choral and orchestral forces and distinguished herself even among the talent around her. Tenor Taylor Comstock snaked his high, silvery voice through the audience and left the impression of a particularly delicate but beautiful flower.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few flies buzzing about the hall. Mendelssohn prepared the text of the oratorio in both German and English, but since its premiere in 1846, the English version of the text has predominated (to understand why you only have to listen to a few minutes of singing in German). The Singers chose to maintain the English text. Unfortunately, the chorus had a sometimes hazy diction that made it difficult to determine exactly what was being sung. There was also a consistent difficulty with the ‘sss’ sound—there were moments when it sounded as though the choir was beating back an infestation of snakes. Despite some minor setbacks, however, the evening was a remarkable success.

The story of Elijah is the story of a prophet reprimanding his people for wandering from the path of righteousness. If they wandered into this performance, even the taciturn man of God would be hard-pressed to find a reason to condemn them.

Arts

Scene&Heard: LexPhil abuzz

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra is about halfway through their 2017-2018 season, and the halfway point for the Lexington Philharmonic is unique.

Like any classical orchestra, each concert has an entirely different repertoire, and classical music is notoriously technically difficult to play, even for professionals. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Maestro Scott Terrell assembled a concert that had the most adventurous and audacious program yet presented this season. It’s a testament to the skill and artistry of the Philharmonic that the concert was a jubilant experience.

LexPhil music director and conductor Scott Terrell

The first piece of the evening at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts was a standard in the repertoire of any orchestra: Giacomo Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville. As Daniel Chetel notes in his program notes for the Philharmonic, this piece is likely familiar to anyone, classical aficionado or no, as the score to the Looney Tunes’ “Rabbit of Seville” cartoon.

Rossini wrote in the full Italian style, emphasizing easily singable (or hum-able) melodies that work their way into the ear and stay there. The key to a good performance of Rossini, then, is to make the sound as clear and clean as possible. This was no challenge to Terrell and the Philharmonic, who obviously enjoy playing the piece.

It’s still a remarkable sight, no matter how many orchestral performances you see, to watch nearly twenty violinists move their bows in absolute unison. It’s a mix of technical precision and passionate artistry that’s quite peculiar to orchestra concerts.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no cutting loose, though. At one point towards the end of the overture, Terrell turned to the side of the podium facing the violist and—and I really can only use this word—boogied with him, while still marking time for the rest of the orchestra.

The main piece for the first half of the evening was a suite of music drawn from Igor Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella. Stravinsky, unquestionably the foremost composer of the 20th Century and possibly the greatest single composer since Beethoven, wrote this piece in the early part of his neo-classical period. After an early career in the 1910’s redefining the sound of not just ballet but the entirety of classical music with pieces like Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrushka, Stravinsky spent much of the next few decades attempting to turn back the musical clock. His neo-classical style looked back to the Baroque period, with delicate counterpoint and strict dance forms, as a basis for containing the seemingly infinite musical options available to the composer.

Igor Stravinsky | Portrait by Arnold Newman – 1946

Even within the supposedly restrictive forms used in the suite, Stravinsky created a sound world all his own. He spins from one musical idea to the next, never settling on one path for too long, but circling back to explore all the options available. Through just one moment of the suite, the orchestra goes from a delicate but cheery violin solo (performed both passionately and expertly by concertmaster Daniel Mason) to a booming thundering clamor from the bass instruments, and then right into a lush orchestral swell under a resumed violin solo; this all happens within perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds of music.

It takes a titanic effort simply to keep everyone together during those moments, and it’s obvious that not just Terrell but the entire orchestra are listening intently to each other.

Stravinsky’s music is always its own sound world— the melodies always sound half familiar, but still distinctly unlike anything that you would think of humming to yourself as you wash the dishes. Towards the end the trombonist and a bassist juggled a short set of phrases back and forth between them, only fully joining into one voice as the whole beast roared into a fanfare for the finale, creating an effect that is both predictable and surprising all at once.

There are plenty of traps for players in Stravinsky’s music— sudden stops for the stings, an out-of-nowhere flute solo that has to soar above the whole rest of the sound and glide gracefully back down— and lesser orchestras often trip up on these moments. Not the Philharmonic. When the violins drop out, they drop out as one, and when they return, it’s as though each bow is connected to the same hand.

The neoclassical style can sometimes sound simplistic or reductive, but Stravinsky orchestrates in an extravagant manner, and the Philharmonic was able to accentuate each part of the whole in such a way that the listener could observe not only the entire effect but the way that every component contributed to the entire experience.

After an intermission, the Philharmonic returned with Vaughan Williams‘ Overture to The Wasps.

Vaughn Williams conducts The Eastman School Symphony Orchestra | Photo courtesy of the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

Williams wrote a whole set of music to play with a production of Aristophanes’ ancient play, but the overture has found a second life among orchestras. It’s obvious why the Philharmonic was attracted to the piece—it has a style that overflows the bounds of the hall, filling the air with thick and overwhelmingly pleasant harmonies.

Williams’ overture runs about nine minutes, and it’s an excellent example of what classical composers can do within that time frame. Whereas pop music tends to be shorter in length and quite focused in terms of form and aesthetic, classical composers often feel free to roam about and wander through their material. Williams offers an example of this—there are no moments of quick change or unexpected leaps to new sections, only a continuous unfolding of transition upon transition. In the capable hands of Terrell, the music flows in an almost out-of-time manner.

The main event of the evening, however, was last.

In his time at the Philharmonic, Terrell has been a champion of new music. In his comments to the audience before the last piece, he said that he believed that orchestras have an obligation to present the “voices of today” to audiences. To accomplish that, the Lexington Philharmonic commissioned a new concerto from renowned composer Chris Brubeck, to be played by the world-famous Canadian Brass.

The concerto, entitled No Borders, was an unequivocal triumph for both composer and orchestra. Brubeck has a style that’s reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, with lots of irregular meters that shout this is genuine American music, and a relentless and optimistic rhythmic drive that throws the piece constantly forward. The Canadian Brass played not just spectacularly, but in magnificent combination with the orchestra—totally in sync, and the whole feeling was one of camaraderie and unity of purpose.

Brubeck’s jazz-influenced style moves effortlessly between a kind of joyous wailing and winging about and moments of passionate harmony that seem suspended in time. He comes by that influence honestly as the son of the great jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. As the piece moved from a rollicking opening movement that brought to mind West Side Story and big band standards to a suave slow second movement, Canadian Brass and the orchestra, with seemingly no effort, demonstrated a graceful and subtle exchange between instruments that’s a hallmark of the highest level of playing in both jazz and classical music.

Canadian Brass performing with LexPhil

The final movement was like a tour of the Alps, moving from one glorious peak to another. With a rhythmic swing that bounces the head up and down and rolls the sound of trumpets and trombones (and tubas and horns) out into the seats and steps of the hall, a raucous and ecstatic energy carried the piece to a close and the audience to its feet.

Canadian Brass member and Lexington native Caleb Hudson

After a standing ovation that lasted for three separate bows, the Canadian Brass returned to offer two encores. The first encore featured Canadian Brass member and Lexington native Caleb Hudson showing off the infamously tricky trumpet solos of The Beatles’ Penny Lane. Canadian Brass also demonstrated exactly how fast their fingers could move with a second encore, featuring The Flight of the Bumblebee in an all-brass arrangement.

The final notes shot by at such a rapid clip that the audience had to give another standing ovation just to capture them as they flew by. 

Many left the hall that night buzzing with excitement over what they had just experienced.

Arts

In Louisville, Abrams Challenges, Delights

If we’re relying on the younger generation to help boost interest in classical music, look no further than Teddy Abrams. The 28-year-old pianist, clarinetist, conductor and composer has just begun his second season as music director of the Louisville Orchestra and he’s brimming with ideas on what to do with Bach, Beethoven and music made today.

Click here for more of Abrams’ NPR Tiny Desk interview by Tom Huizenga.