Review-Choral Arts at Severance Hall 2012

Concert Review


Suburban Symphony & Choral Arts Cleveland at Severance Hall

A Concert of Music and Healing (November 18, 2012)

by Guytano Parks

A grand sense of occasion prevailed at Severance Hall when The Suburban Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Martin Kessler performed “A Concert of Music and Healing” on Sunday, November 18. Presented by the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cleveland and the Neurological Institute of University Hospitals, proceeds from this benefit performance will go to Alzheimer’s treatment, therapy and research. Further adding to the sense of occasion was the Cleveland premiere of Robert Cohen’s Alzheimer’s Stories, fittingly performed on this beautiful autumn afternoon as November is designated as National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.

Opening the concert with Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand was pianist Emanuela Friscioni, Director of the Performing Arts Academy at Cuyahoga Community College and a member of the piano faculty at The Cleveland Institute of Music. Ravel was commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein to write a concerto for the left hand after having lost his right arm in World War I, and the resultant work has become one of the great masterpieces in the literature. Double basses playing softly on open strings and a dark solo by the contrabassoon imparted just the right feel of unease and ambiguity as the work bubbled and brewed with a gradual crescendo to the piano’s dramatic entrance.

Friscioni was stunning in her role as soloist, playing with ease, fluidity and an unerring sense of rhythm while appropriately placing the spotlight when called for upon the work’s drama. Most impressive was her expressive delivery of melodic material while maintaining a myriad of scintillating notes within subdued, sensitively shaded colors. Kessler conducted admirably, keeping a fine rapport between soloist and orchestra. Friscioni, Kessler and The Suburban Symphony Orchestra last performed this work in October 2008 at Beachwood High School when they paid tribute to Cleveland’s beloved pianist Eunice Podis who was soloist on numerous occasions when her husband, the late Robert C. Weiskopf led the group until 1978. It was truly a pleasure to hear it again in the splendor of Severance Hall.

Beethoven wrote his Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra to serve as a “brilliant finale” to a concert which premiered his fifth andsixth symphonies in addition to the C major Mass. The sequence of variations on a theme in the Fantasia is widely believed to be an earlier version of thetheme used in the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony. Brilliant it was indeed in the hands of pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi, First Prize winner in the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition and Distinguished Professor of Piano at The Cleveland Institute of Music, who was soloist on this occasion. The piano part is really an extended quasi-cadenza which is embellished first with orchestra in chamber-like dialogue, then joined by vocal soloists and chorus. Clever manipulations of the theme affirm Beethoven a master of variation as the work progresses from darkness to light in its triumphant conclusion.

Pompa-Baldi showed his musical mettle, playing with a muscular and penetrating tone, projecting every detail clearly and with conviction. Phrases had beauty and direction, filigree and ornamentation were articulate. Kessler led pianist, expressive vocal soloists soprano Diane Menges, alto Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, tenor Rick Schmid and basses Ted Christopher & Ralph Heimburger and the clear-dictioned Choral Arts Cleveland with precise cues, gesturing with care and attention to detail.

After intermission came Alzheimer’s Stories by Robert Cohen, winner of the 2008 New York Composer’s Circle Award, who spoke from the stage, introducing his Cleveland premiere. Conceived in a very attractive and accessible idiom with theatrical influence, Cohen wrote his three movement work in collaboration with librettist Herschel Garfien. As a result of an anonymous donation from a member of the Susquehanna Valley Chorale to the chorale to help fund the commissioning of a musical work to honor his parents who both died from the disease, and the subsequent compilation of recorded stories from members of the Susquehanna Valley Chorale and members of the community describing their experiences with Alzheimer’s among their family and friends in 2007, a selected group of those submissions became the basis for Alzheimer’s Stories for soloists, chorus and large ensemble (more information in ClevelandClassical’s preview).

In terms of getting the message out about this debilitating and devastating disease in a heartfelt and meaningful way through music, this reading of Cohen’s innovative work could be deemed a total success. Kessler’s long involvement as conductor of both The Suburban Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Cleveland was apparent in this well-prepared performance, which also included the Glee Clubs of Laurel and University Schools.

In the first movement, The Numbers, a whimsical march-like onset with effective writing for percussion and creative instrumentation leads way to a journey of familiarity to which we’ve undoubtedly all been privy.It is an objective description of the discovery of the disease by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1901 including the number of individuals currently afflicted, future projections and dramatized conversations between Dr. Alzheimer and his patient Auguste Dieter. The movement ends with a quote from his patient – “Ich hab mich verloren”, “I have lost myself.”

The second movement, The Stories, is a pastiche of a number of stories selected from the choir’s blog. With a mixture of pathos, poignancy and humor, mezzo-soprano Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber portrayed a woman who thinks she’s still on a boat to Panama with her father, while baritone Ted Christopher portrayed a WWII Navy veteran who repeats the same bawdy story of the war so many times that the chorus can recite it by heart. Both soloists brought their characters to life and sang quite expressively, although a bit more projection would have benefitted Cutsforth-Huber’s reading.

For the Caregivers, the final movement, was inspired by a chorus member who visited a nursing home and was asked to sing. When asked what, the patient replied: “sing anything.” This idea became the centerpiece and focus of the movement after having first been referenced in the second, concluding Alzheimer’s Stories with some semblance of hope: “Find those you love in the dark and light. Help them through the days and nights. Keep faith. They sense what they cannot show. Love and music are the last things to go. Sing anything. Sing.”