From Fauré to Bolcom

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Saturday, March 23, 2019
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Faulkner Gallery


On Saturday, March 9 at 3 p.m. the Santa Barbara Music Club will present another program in its popular series of concerts of beautiful Classical music. This afternoon pianist Betty Oberacker, violinist Nicole McKenzie, and soprano Kim Holmquist perform a program of chamber music and song ranging from the classical tradition to musical theater. This concert, co-sponsored by the Santa Barbara Public Library, will be held at the Faulkner Gallery of the library, 40 East Anapamu, Santa Barbara. Admission is free.

Betty Oberacker and Kim Holmquist feature today a selection of songs spanning the gamut of stylistic and emotional spectra: A parody of nursery rhymes, horrifying lullaby, comedic aria, absurd cabaret, and medley of a now-classic American musical.

The British musical polyglot Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947) had a childhood analogous to that of Mozart. He apparently could recognize and sing notes before learning to speak! So his family immersed him in musical study early in his life, which afforded him the opportunity to study with the great Donald Tovey. Around 1909, the Hely-Hutchinson family moved to Ascot, where Tovey lived, so the young Victor could study regularly with him. Victor’s lessons consisted of piano technique, composition, and music history. Tovey noted the boy of 10 was supremely gifted in composition, as evinced by the boy’s 1912 song “Old Mother Hubbard.” Tovey’s blended approach to lessons seems to have informed the young Victor’s creative prowess, as “Old Mother Hubbard” parodies – even mock’s a little – Handel’s operatic style. In the larger context of Western music history, looking back to master’s of the 17th and 18th centuries characterized the early-modernist period, and all but defined the neoclassical period that followed.

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) also reached back to an operatic tradition in his works, that of the Italian school, as demonstrated in “The Black Swan” and “Hello! Hello!” These pieces are two popular songs extrapolated from a pair operas, The Medium and The Telephone, respectively. Both operas, ironically, had a successful run as a pair on Broadway, New York City, beginning in 1947. The Medium critiques with bleak, unforgiving drama the emotional manipulation that often befalls bereaved persons at the hands of pseudo-spiritualists, psychics, and mediums. “Swan Song” closes the first half of the brief, two-act opera in which the young girl Monica sings the lullaby to calm her incensed mother, the medium Baba, after having been visited by an unknown spirit. Critics almost unanimously agree on “Swan Song” as the most memorable and popular tune of The Medium. On the other hand, The Telephone counterbalances the gloom and doom with a one-act light-hearted comedy. The main character, Ben, wishes to propose to his beloved Lucy. The only problem is he cannot get her off the phone and is constantly frustrated throughout the opera. “Hello! Hello!” shows Lucy speaking to her friend Margaret on the phone, thus preventing Ben from asking the all-important question.

“Lime Jello: An American Cabaret” (1980) takes a turn away from the operatic and steps toward, as the title suggests, cabaret and vaudeville with this wildly funny culinary concoction. William Bolcom (b. 1938) is one of the most recognized names in American contemporary classical music, due largely to his versatility. He penned symphonies, string quartets, piano rags, organ works, art songs – all of which in styles ranging from jazz to serialism. This song demonstrates Bolcom’s ability to convey humor and even satire. Listening to this piece has the peculiar effect of describing the recipe of a sweet and savory jello casserole – equal parts fascination and repulsion at the absurdity of it all.

One of the most iconic American musicals, West Side Story, has been subject to several arrangements for myriad performing ensembles: mixed choirs of different voicings, vocal duets, solo vocals, piano, concert band, marching band, and so forth. And for good reason, too. The refitting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for gangs in the slums of 1960s New York City has both timeless and contemporary appeal. Despite the initially divisive reception of West Side Story in 1961, posterity has been kind to it likely because of the legendary collaboration of musical minds: composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and librettist Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930). Together they produced some of the most well-known songs in the American musical repertory, including “America” “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “I Feel Pretty,” to name a few. The first half fittingly concludes with a “Medley” of tunes from West Side Story.

In hindsight, most classical-music enthusiasts regard Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) as a traditional figure, especially in comparison to the so-called Impressionist composers who followed him. Yet examined against the backdrop of his French socio-historical contexts, Fauré is both maverick and trendsetter. Many elements of his life run against the grain of what French composers were like in the era immediately preceding the fin de siècle. He was not educated at the Conservatoire de Paris, and for many years critics considered his musical vision too dangerous and revolutionary for a teaching post. Also his chamber works, among them the Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 13 (1875 – 76), were atypical of what French composers were producing in the 1870s. For all the apparent derision, Fauré eventually became director of the Conservatoire in the early 1900s, and his Violin Sonata, along with his Piano Quartet, Op. 15, and César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major became the premiere large-scale chamber works of the French Romantic tradition. Indeed, Fauré’s violin sonata received extravagant praise and became an instant classic of French chamber music. Violinist Nicole McKenzie and pianist Betty Oberacker close this afternoon’s program with Fauré’s sumptuous piece.

Program subject to change.