Artes Vocales of LA as Shakespeare’s songbirds

by Alan Nitikman, Lister reviewer

Artes Vocales of Los Angeles recently concertized at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, with “Shakespeare in Song”, a program built around works of Shakespeare which have been used in choral music and opera. A troupe of three energetic and talented Shakespearean actors (Raymond Donahey, Brendan Haley, and Bree Pavey) started off the proceedings with well-selected Shakespearean and quasi-Shakespearean dialogue, to good effect. They appeared throughout the show in the balconies, onstage and in the aisles, threading the musical numbers together with their banter.

Dr. Steven Kronauer

Starring, impressively, primo tenore Eduardo Villa and bass guitarist Abraham Laboriel Sr., what was most striking about this concert was the depth of the talent beyond the headliners. Dr. Steven Kronauer deserves much credit for populating his chorus with solid, well-trained, well-produced voices.

For the first piece alone, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, sixteen soloists were listed. And all of them were strong, many exceptional. Delia Rios led off with her easy lyric soprano, followed by stanzas given to every voice type. Even tenor Eduardo Villa, the principal vocal soloist of the night who had plenty to sing in the second half, generously and effectively sang a small solo toward the end of the number with no fanfare. The other soloists included Kara Carrier, Mallory Gantner, Jenny Ohrstrom, Katherine Alon White, Laurel Krause, Sarah Reynolds, Jeanne Winn, Daniel Charleston, Gabor Ekecs, Chenduen Hwang, Eugene Carbajal, William Malone, and Douglas McDonald. Kudos to them all.

Abraham Laboriel Sr.

John Rutter is well known for the beauty of his choral arrangements and accessible melodies, and his Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind was a nice, warm bath in lush choral voicings. Next came a radical contrast, George Shearing’s Music to Hear, a setting of five songs from Shakespeare. Shearing’s composition starts off with the eponymous Sonnet No. 8, Music to Hear, in a dissonant, haunting nod to Frederick Delius; then moves into a Renaissance period style for the next two numbers; and suddenly, with the last two, Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more and Blow, blow thou Winter wind, falls into a comfortable, swinging jazz rhythm. Conductor Kronauer and his ensemble nailed every style. Abraham Laboriel Sr. played an unobtrusive bass guitar for the classically-inspired movements, but broke out and drove the two jazz numbers with authority and an obvious enjoyment that the audience couldn’t help sharing. The applause was thundering and Laboriel responded with an encore of his own composition, a finger-style piece which, played on his 5-string bass, had an elegance and harmonic layering that sounded more like Joe Pass at his finest than an electric bass solo.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Shakespeare-inspired operatic excerpts. The Midsummer Night’s Dream “Fairy Chorus”, as conceived by Felix Mendelssohn, was as airy a dream as Shakespeare could have intended. The piece featured Kara Carrier, who both sang and played flute idiomatically, and Melissa Elza with her attractive lyric soprano, the chorus backing or interacting with her in turns.

avolo-group-GBC_600px_webIn Verdi’s daunting Otello, Act I, Scene I opens on the harbor in Cyprus, with Otello’s ship arriving in a tumult of wind and rain. The chorus, led by Daniel Charleston as Cassio, exclaims at espying Otello’s ship in a flash of lightning and on the violence of the sea and sky. Eugene Carbajal’s dark bass revealed Iago’s malevolent thoughts to fellow basso Douglas MacDonald (conspirators are nearly always bassos in Verdi), until Eduardo Villa finally made his headline appearance with a stentorian “Esultate!”, heroic in his troops’ triumphant return from war.

In Act I, Scene III, Villa’s Otello was well-partnered with Jenny Ohrstrom’s full lyric soprano as Desdemona in Già nella notte densa. She sang beautifully and with sensitivity and Villa matched her in the tender duet, when Otello’s joy at once again being with Desdemona overtakes him. A well-staged, well-acted and well-sung romantic moment.

Eduardo Villa

Two excerpts from Macbeth followed: The Chorus of Scottish Refugees’ Patria opressa, a brilliant foreshadowing of the carnage to follow, well-delivered by the chorus in a haunting pianissimo; and Macduff’s aria, Ah, la paterna mano, perfect for Eduardo Villa’s dark spinto, a powerful, affecting father’s lament at the loss of his wife and sons to the treacherous Macbeth. With no sets and minimal staging, these two Verdi tragedies raised the level of the concert to one totally unexpected outside of a professional opera house.

The concert was rounded off with Verdi’s lighthearted, raucous treatment of Shakespeare’s comedy, Falstaff. Laurel Krause, Sarah Reynolds and Katherine Alton White played the Merry Wives, the targets of Falstaff’s love letters, acting the scene brilliantly, all of them singing as well as I’ve ever heard this music sung. Craig Benson and Delia Rios interwove the transcendentally beautiful love duet of Fenton and Nanetta into the mix, Benson with his easy, light lyric tenor and Rios sailing above him with her floating soprano, perhaps the most beautiful moment of the night. Wrapping the set with the irrepressible final fugue from Falstaff, the entire chorus converged to put a button on this memorable evening.

Twyla Meyer

At this point, to throw in the traditional, “the ensemble was ably supported by the accompaniment of Twyla Meyer,” just won’t cut it. Ms. Meyer was much more than a “typical” choral accompanist, if there is such a thing. After some excellent, understated support in the Vaughan Williams and Rutter, she really swung in the Shearing like a seasoned session player. And in the Otello Act I, Scene I, she served as orchestra, giving us a proper Verdi storm – and his storms tend to be violent, as the choristers pointed out in the lyrics. She was impressive throughout. As for Dr. Kronauer, none of this would have come together without his leadership and vision. Members of the chorus had nothing but praise for his excellent conducting, leadership, boundless enthusiasm and sense of humor. All of that was in evidence in every moment of the concert. Pasadena Conservatory of Music and the AVOLA program Kronauer heads are to be commended for an evening of exceptional music.

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