Was Da Camera's season finale the concert of the year? Frank Huang & JeanStilwell folk rock it
The obsession over the exploration of folk songs, its origins and contemporary musical settings is aligned with a macro societal interest in all things local, organic and pure. Before there was art music, there were folk songs. Before there were musical instruments, there was the human voice.
And whether they were used to pass on a story, carry a message or the soul of a culture, the investigation of their history can be challenging as the essence of their meaning can be lost in time and translation, and through transformations.
When Da Camera of Houston presented its season finale performance, "Folk Songs Transformed: Old Into New," at the Wortham Theater Center, it traced the different permutations certain folk songs have endured from the romantic period to the recent past.
Assembling a wicked corps of musicians, Da Camera presented a tour de force concert that I can only describe as bad ass.
With the evening nicely programmed and paced, artistic director and pianist Sarah Rothenberg once again crafted a unified program with wide appeal.
Opening with Sergei Prokofiev'sOverture on Hebrew Themes, guest clarinetist Laura Flax, principal of the New York City Opera Orchestra, played with a rich open sound, taking style appropriate liberties to bring out the naughty Klezmer in the piece with a hint of musical flirtation. Often, the work is played too slow or too fast. Da Camera found that perfect tempo, moving the music forward and allowing for rubatiwhere melodically necessary.
Brahms' Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A minor was as far back as Rothenberg was willing to retreat in time. The composer had access to collections of German folk songs, so it isn't surprising that these would be morphed into high art, appearing in a myriad of his compositions. The piece hints to his Symphony No. 1 in C minor. It's rich harmonies are made even darker by the use of the A clarinet.
Flax had delicate control, shaping phrases beautifully with al niente releases. Rothenberg played with a dark yet crystal clear and transparent sound, working harmoniously to be present at times and supportive at others. Israeli cellist Amit Peled made his instrument seem toy-like, performing with ease and passionate simplicity. Though there were a few ensemble timing concerns, they were immediately forgotten given the strong emotional content and convincing musicality.
Houston Symphony concertmaster Frank Huang taught me something about George Enescu. Otherwise known for that cheesy piece appearing in most pop series seasons — I am speaking of Romanian Rhapsody of course — his Sonata No. 3 "dans le caractère populaire roumain" is nothing of the sort.
It's deep, complex and ominous, with a hint of playfulness and folkish carelessness. Huang and pianist Timothy Hester had previously performed the work at Huang's University of Houston recital. Da Camera gave him an opportunity to look it at again.
It was a feat of musical strength with difficulty to be found in technical, musical and ensemble performance. The duo nailed the work, allowing Huang to show off all the minute nuances that are often lost in orchestral performance but can be appreciated in smaller ensembles.
If anyone stole the show, it was mezzo Jean Stilwell with Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. Performing barefoot and donning a form fitting green gown with feathery accessories, Stilwell's spiky aubergine hair and tatts epitomized her free gypsy spirit, the kind that's needed to interpret the kindred style of the work.
It demands diction dexterity in Italian, Armenian, French and Azerbaijani. With shifting moods, affect and meter, ranging from carefully orchestrated rhythmically driving patterns to more aleatoric writing, the performer often needs to be bi-polar to be able to pull it off. Stilwell brought out the piece's mannerisms masterfully, at times airy and pastoral, at others strong and piercing, and at the conclusion, she found the balance between high art and deliciously ethnic joyful lilt. Now, that's sexy.
Violist Abhijit Sengupta opened the work with perfect intonation and an exquisite rural feel. Houston Symphony's John Thorne's cutesy piccolo riffs made everyone smile, only to be distracted by strange oversized slinky look alike percussion instruments.
From this critic, the Berio and the whole concert, earned a standing ovation.