Sunday, June 2, 2013

St. Lawrence arrives, orchestra members shine, and opera transcends its setting

The prodigal St. Lawrence Quartet

Posted by Jeffrey Day on Sun, Jun 2, 2013 at 8:51 AM

For the first time in many years, the St. Lawrence Quartet wasn’t around for the first week of the festival’s chamber series, although violinist Geoff Nuttall has been here as host. They all showed up Saturday for the 1 p.m. concert.

Cellist Chris Costanza arrived Friday to show what he could do with a Bach suite — since, after all, he recently recorded all six — and he and pianist Pedja Muzijevic started the Saturday concert with Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. This is one of the six sonatas the composer started writing in his 50s in part to distance himself from the “impressionist” label pinned on him; they are much more focused and classical. In keeping with the death theme of this year’s festival, it should be noted Debussy finished only three of the six before he died.

The concert traveled from France to Argentina for a lively, but mostly serious 1945 duo for flute and oboe by Alberto Ginastera, marking the first appearance in the series this year by popular flautist Tara Helen O’Connor.

The whole St. Lawrence crew took to the stage for Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1 in which the composer made several bold statements with its length of 40 minutes (twice the length of his earlier pieces), the complexity of each part and the level of group interaction. It was a groundbreaking work for the 36-year-old Beethoven who wasn’t yet widely known and had only begun composing eight years earlier.

Needless to say, St. Lawrence was up to the job of doing this important piece justice and received a deserved warm welcome home.

The Spoleto Festival Orchestra members are usually seen as a group in a chamber orchestra setting or in one of the big orchestra concerts, or not at all because they’re in the pit during an opera. The second Intermezzo concert put them in the spotlight as soloists, duos, or small groups in music ranging from a Bach cello suite (those are popular this year), to pieces by important 20th century composers, a traditional Afghan tune, and two pieces by Benjamin Britten in honor of his centenary.

It started in a fun way with a Britten three-trumpet fanfare with one of the players on stage and two others in house. The Bach cellist seemed pretty nervous — maybe she’d heard Constanza the day before.

Then came a great early work by Olivier Messiaen, best known for his Quartet for The End of Time. Theme and Variation for violin and piano, written when he was only 24, uses a classical form unusual for the composer, but building in a new way, each variation moving at increasingly quicker speeds with added variations. Violinist Haerim Elizabeth Lee and pianist Benedicte Jourdois killed it — in a good way.

All on her own, the viola player did the same with Gyorgy Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages which is a kind of concentrated music, getting the most and widest range out of the least. And it’s nice to see the violist get the spotlight for a change. Unfortunately, I had to dash off to another performance and missed the last few works, including the Afghan piece.

Arriving at the Unitarian Church’s Gage Hall for Charleston Chamber Opera (a part of Piccolo) I’d felt I'd abandoned the pros for amateur hour. The performance in the small hall with a tiny stage, very little in the way of sets, and no stage lighting started with a long introduction by the group’s development director, who, wearing a “French” striped shirt and tiny mustache, stayed on stage for several songs by Debussy, Faure, and Ravel.

The whole set-up was stereotypically French to the point of being stupid, but the singing by Patrice Tiedemann, Hugo Vera (who has performed in a couple Spoleto operas in the past), and Christian Elser, with musical director Lynn Kompass on upright piano, was very smart and sharp. Much of the action, including the work of several dancers, took place on the floor, making it hard to see. A concert setting would have been a better choice.

Then the company launched the main attraction, Debussy’s small opera L’Enfant Prodigue, based on the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. The simple sets and costumes, the cramped room, and the lack of lighting all disappeared and the lovely moving story, beautiful music, and amazing vocal performances took over. It grew to something much larger than could be contained by the reality of the environment. The second and final performance takes place Sunday at 4 p.m.

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