A full audience on Saturday night got a special treat, as a benefit concert proved to be something very special indeed: violinist Kirstin Fife and tenor Daniel Chaney joined organist/choirmaster Connie Grisham on keyboards for an intimate special-interest event at St. George’s Episcopal Church in La Cañada Flintridge. Music for Charity Events is an ongoing project created and helmed by Grisham, and she has been creating lovely programs for good causes for a couple of years, placing the focus on a different beneficiary for each concert and garnering strong support from the congregation and the surrounding community. This was no exception: drawing a crowd to support the Oglala Lakota Native American tribe, funds go to the Red Shirt Project, an ongoing endeavor through the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, building facilities, programs and support for this very poor community and organizing an annual working trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota each summer. For this concert, admission was free, but money was raised in several ways: donations at the door, sales of Fife’s CD, Pieces of My Heart, from which two-thirds of the funds received at the concert were donated directly to the project, and through the sale of Red Shirt Project mugs. An elegant reception was provided by volunteers and church members, and a good time was had by all.
What Grisham and her team does particularly well is that their events are unusually well-crafted, welcoming experiences, giving the audience a gift of friendly surroundings as well as of extraordinary music. The church sanctuary itself is a beautiful, airy space that is naturally warm and welcoming. Unencumbered by overly flashy or ornate decor that would overpower the small space (the sanctuary seats about 120), the white walls and dark-toned rib-like beams of the simple hall feel open and homey, and the “stage” area where the altar usually is was set up in a sort of casual living room layout, with wicker armchairs, objets d’art and throws scattered tastefully about. There was a keyboard and music stands, but otherwise, it might have been a theater set for a casual coffee house or even an inviting home. After a very brief introduction, Chaney started off with an almost startlingly a cappella “Celtic Song”, a simple chant that grabbed the audience’s attention in an instant. Followed by Fife’s soaring Villa-Lobos, accompanied by Grisham, there was no doubt that we were in for a treat of concert-hall quality, but the casual atmosphere of a house concert.
The acoustics in the sanctuary are rich and bright, and the musical selections played to the strengths of the room, which offers vibrant sounds with plenty of ring, but not so much reverb that the atmosphere feels stodgy. This grand intimacy is infectious and easy, leaving the audience thoroughly engaged — we didn’t catch a single sleepily nodding head in the place. The resonant space does make it hard to understand the performers during some of their off-the-cuff remarks, but most of the speaking between pieces worked well — they chatted with the audience, lounged and listened while the others performed, and added touches that made for user-friendly concertizing: Grisham subtly but clearly offered an applause cue after the second piece, so attendees felt comfortable responding to the pieces they were clearly enjoying. Casual remarks included Daniel’s admission that “I’m not a big fan of this song”, in reference to ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables, but then he explained the personal connection he has to the song, with a singing cousin who has now returned safely from Iraq, allowing us to connect with his performance in a more meaningful way.
Daniel Chaney’s voice has the rare gift of true genre flexibility, moving effortlessly between classical and musical theatre repertoire. His soaring high notes show off the purity of his tone that is sometimes jaw-dropping. His navigation of the leaps and ornaments of J.S. Bach’s Cantata Ostertag (BWV 160) was skillful and full of shimmer. His exquisite vocal control allows him to mix dynamics and colors like a painter. But the real star is his heart, as he sings with real truth and conviction, exhibiting charisma and real joy. Kirstin Fife’s violin melodies make use of considerable tonal depth and gypsy swish: her obvious skill fades out of consciousness in the face of voice-like expressivity as well as acrobatic play and fluid slides across the strings. This is string player as storyteller, concocting images as clearly as if they were projected on the wall behind her. In addition to putting the whole thing together, Connie Grisham wore several stylistic hats for this program, shifting between periods and genres with ease.
Best of all, these gifted performers obviously enjoy each other and love what they do, and their genuine pleasure in this evening’s activities was clearly apparent.
Bravo to all three, and all the best to the Red Shirt Project.
Red Shirt Project website
Music for Charity Events on Facebook