Kelley O’Connor opens New World chamber season with a tour de force

By Lawrence Budmen

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor performed Berio's "Folk Songs" with members of the New World Symphony Sunday afternoon at New World Center. Photo: Dario Acosta

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor performed Berio’s “Folk Songs” with members of the New World Symphony Sunday afternoon at New World Center. Photo: Dario Acosta

Luciano Berio was one of the leading creative voices of the musical avant garde in the second half of the twentieth century. While he was best known for his pathbreaking electronic and experimental scores, Berio also had a more traditional side to his palette, making adaptations and completions of scores by Boccherini, Schubert and Puccini.

One of his best known works is Folk Songs, an eleven-movement song cycle written in 1964 for his first wife Cathy Berberian. This wonderful vocal work was the centerpiece of “Folk Fantasies,” the New World Symphony’s first chamber music concert of the season Sunday afternoon.

In addition to folk material, the score includes two songs by American composer John Jacob Niles, two original songs that Berio composed in 1947 while still a student, and two from Joseph Canteloube’s collection Songs of the Auvergne. Some of the songs are presented in their original form with spiky instrumental dressing as seasoning. Others are considerably altered in melody and style. Berberian, a contemporary music specialist, was a mezzo-soprano with an extended vocal range. The challenge for any singer who attempts the score is to encompass the vocal acrobatics, linguistic variety and stylistic diversity of the songs.

Kelley O’Connor met all those requirements and more.  From the moment she took the stage at the New World Center in Miami Beach, O’Connor demonstrated her versatility and empathy for the score’s shifting moods and accents. Niles’ “Black is the Color” and “I Wonder as I Wander” were rendered in a gutsy vernacular manner rather than in formal operatic tones. Caroline Gilbert’s viola took on the aura of country fiddling while Julia Coronelli’s arpeggiated harp chords provided support to the vocal lines.

O’Connor’s warm timbre came to the fore in a soaring version of “The Moon Has Risen,” an Armenian melody. She enacted childlike wonder in a French ditty about a nightingale and belted the Sicilian song “May the Lord Send Fine Weather” in a pop-diva manner that would not be out of place at the San Remo Song Festival.

Berio’s two songs sound more contemporary and are replete with technically demanding writing for the vocalist. Even at that early stage of his creative life, Berio was challenging his performers. O’Connor sailed through the vocal gymnastics while delivering the two sections at a hard-driving pace. The aching sadness of a Sardinian song emerged almost bluesy. Two Canteloube tunes spotlighted O’Connor’s richness of sonority and charm.

With a strong beat from percussionists Michael Jarrett and Bradley Loudis, the “Azerbaijan Love Song” concluded the group in a rousing manner. Among the excellent chamber ensemble, special kudos to flutist Masha Popova for consistently agile playing in the instrument’s highest reaches. New World conducting fellow Dean Whiteside gave O’Connor finely proportioned support and balanced the instrumental timbres adroitly.

If the remainder of the concert seemed anticlimactic after O’Connor’s tour de force, it was not because the performances were lacking in skill or conviction. The program opened with a highly polished reading of Leoš Janácek’s Youth. This gem of a wind sextet mixes Czech folk themes with harmonic twists and surprising instrumental flourishes. Russell Rybicki’s strong horn sounded the march-like calls resolutely. Flutist Elizabeth Lu and oboist James Riggs navigated the whirling melodic patterns with aplomb, well seconded by Ron Kampel, clarinet, Zach Manzi, bass clarinet and Brenton Foster, bassoon.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Mini Overture for Brass Quintet was a three-minute fanfare that served as a musical palate-cleanser. Jarrett McCourt offered sturdy tone and heft in the prominent tuba part.

Dvorák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major is  replete with high-spirited thematic invention that recalls the verve of the Slavonic Dances. The well-balanced ensemble of pianist John Wilson, violinist Maya Cohon, violist Hannah Nicholas and cellist Alexa Ciciretti took an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the outer movements. This was Dvorák with an edge but it was undeniably exciting. Wilson lightened his touch for the lyricism of the Lento and Cohon’s elegantly turned phrasing and Ciciretti’s and Nicholas’ spacious line and beautiful sonority infused the waltzes of the third movement with Bohemian lilt.

The New World Symphony’s chamber series continues with “Taking the Prize: A Pulitzer Centennial Celebration” featuring Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy, Steve Reich’s Double Sextet and Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring in the original chamber version 2 p.m. November 20 at New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Oct 9, 2016
at 11:13 pm
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