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Music review: Van Evera returns to Duluth to sing with the LSCO

Duluth-born soprano Emily Van Evera returned to perform with the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra. The final concert of their summer season at the College of St. Scholastica's Mitchell Auditorium found the LSCO joined by the young musicians of their Quartet Project and the vocals of the Twin Ports Choral Project.

The size of the orchestra on staged swelled with the addition of the students, with many of the regular musicians literally taking beat seats. An added treat was having the five quartets of young musicians playing on both levels of the venue outside of the auditorium (as well as providing the concert master for the first half of the program).

Kenji Bunch's "Supermaximum" premiered two years ago and provided a decidedly different opening to the concert. As the piece begins the first thought that comes to mind is that's the sound of men working on the chain. Gang. The viols and cellos playing over the stomping feet is quite compelling. The usual symmetrical configuration of the orchestra had the viols taking center stage, both physically and in terms of leading the way for the "singing," and having the violins respond.

Given the specific setting of the chain gang, this is a rhetorical piece that functions syllogistically. The first section presents the hard work of the weary workers, the second introduces transcendent themes, which elevate the original theme when it reemerges in the final section. For me the piece was quite reminiscent of some of the orchestrations of Paul Buckmaster, whose work I have always enjoyed.

As with last week's LSCO concert, the program again included some visual delights. Kirsten Lepore’s animated short "Bottle" takes a relatively simple idea involving sculpting sand and snow, and comes up with something both cute and surprisingly poignant. Katherine Corecig's "Passacaglia" matches the initial tentativeness of the relationship developing on screen. A passacaglia was an apt choice for the soundtrack, since the form is usually based on a bass-ostinato, which foreshadows the story's conclusion.

Next, Germaine Tailleferre's "Fleurs de France" was accompanied by projections of inks and watercolor paintings by Anni Friessen. Conductor Friessen could not find the mechanical drawings of the various French flowers that inspired each bit of music, but was able to recruit his daughter to do the eight works, which were donated for auction.

Early on the pieces tended to have a theme developed by individual instruments — piccolo, oboe, trumpet, flute — that was then overtaken by the swelling strings. Later pieces tended to pair up those instruments. I had been listening to the piano versions of these pieces, so I was taken by how these orchestrations transformed them.

Van Evera previously appeared with the LSCO in 2010, performing songs by George Frideric Handel, Thomas Arne, and most memorably the hymn "Das himmlische Leben" from the last movement of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. This time around the focus was on the songs of Charles Ives and a pair of Slovakian composers, and Friessen made a point of crediting Van Evera with suggesting all of the selections from this point on in the concert.

I think we can be forgiven if we take the opening two lines of "Down East," as speaking for the singer: "Visions of my homeland, come with strains of childhood, Come with tunes we sang in school days and with songs from mother's heart." Clearly Van Evera has an affection for Ives songs, but the sound of the orchestra was consistently drowning out her soprano voice for several of these songs, which was a shame because she was the chief attraction of the evening. Fortunately, there was an adjustment made after intermission, and noticeable improvement for the second half of the concert.

A common element in the first four songs was Ives setting the lyrics of others to his own music. That first song included a bit of Sarah Flower Adams' "Nearer, my God, to Thee," while the second, "At the River," used music from Ives' 4th Violin Sonata for Robert Lowry's popular hymn, "Shall We Gather at the River." "In the mornin'" was a powerful little spiritual by an anonymous source, and my favorite of the first set of Ives songs. "Evening" was taken from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," and as a relatively quiet piece was the one where Van Evera's vocal talents shined best.

Ives had a lifelong disdain for commercial music, and writing in seclusion freed him from its taint. "Old Home Day" stands in stark contrast to these other songs, in that it actually has a couple of verses and such diverse elements as Kathryn Sandor as the "3rd Corps fife" and Paul Bagley violin defining the tune of an Irish song.

After intermission the focus shifted to the U.S. premiers of pieces by a pair of Slovakian composers previously recorded by Van Evera, beginning with two liturgical works by Ján Levoslav Bella. "Ave Maria" played out against just the string, Van Evera providing the larger voice the piece demanded in contrast to the Ives songs. "Adiutor meus" ("my knowledge is my helper") offered an interesting theological juxtaposition of a pair of couplets from two different psalms. This was one of Van Evera's most effective pieces of the evening, Bella adding brass and woodwinds to build the song dramatically.

This was followed by two sections of Vladimir Godar's "Querela Pacis" ("Complaint of Peace") oratorio. The instrumental "A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times," offers a melancholic theme that moves oboe to flute before the strings transform it into something deeper and more luscious tune. Again a theme is developed by the woodwinds, then passed to the strings for a similar alteration, with Godar setting a pulse below the main melody.

I found "Psalmus — Domine exaudi" to be a powerful experience. Van Evera offers a small, beseeching voice, singing against an immense and imposing universe. Her voice slowly builds in intensity. Cellos, harpsichord, harp and chorus join in, again slowly, ever so slowly transforming her plea into something grand. By the time the violins and viols are added, Van Evera is using her full voice. The effect was rather moving, the focus not so much on what the penitent is asking, as how it sounds at the other end. Voices are raised fully, until reduced to the soloist, her initial sense of hesitancy now gone.

The rest of that half of the program was devoted to the work of Ives. Eight of the ten Ives pieces were noted in the program as being world premiers, or world premieres in this setting, denoting the new orchestrations provided by Andrew Parrott and Jonathan Williams. I had thought that "Slow March (Inscribed to the Children's Faithful Friend)" was about the death of the family dog, but Van Evera informed us it was actually about a cat.

The chorus had great fun with another march, "The Circus Band." Complete with a tuba, this one had some interesting lyrics by Ives and convinced me that his best songs would have been far better suited for the theatrical stage than being sung in the front parlor.

"Thoreau" was adapted from the fourth movement of Ives' Piano Sonata No. 2, "Concord," which was dedicated to Thoreau, described by Ives as "a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear 'the Symphony.'" A description of Thoreau's meditations, replete with the "vibration of the universal lyre" sets up the short song, which has a touch of the celestial as it evaporates at the end.

Following "Thoreau" with "Serenity" made for an elegant pairing, the harp and piano alternating simple notes as Van Evera sang the first two verses of the John Greenleaf Whittier hymn for which Ives had composed new music. In both pieces, Van Evera brought an emotional resonance to these relatively simple little songs.

The oratorio "The Celestial Country" was first performed in 1902 and composed when Ives was a church organist, although Friesen orchestrated the organ part for this performance. "To the Eternal Father Loudest Anthems Raise" served as the finale for the concert and the season, the choral starting off a cappella, then joined by the horns and woodwinds, and eventually by the strings. The spirited singing drove the song and the evening to a rousing finish.

Final Notes: You can both view "Bottle" and listen to "Passacaglia" on Corecig's website, where you will discover she also wrote a new soundtrack for Buster Keaton's classic silent film "The General" and watch a couple of clips. Meanwhile, on YouTube you can also check out Lepore's "Making of 'Bottle' in 1 minute" video, which will lead you to her "Move Mountain" video, and several other of her works, that will keep you entertained for quite a while.

While further exploration of the works of Charles Ives seems pretty inevitable after such exposure, my personal recommendation would be checking out the complete recording of Godar's "Querela Pacis," which also features Van Evera's singing. The last time I was this taken with a contemporary liturgical work it was Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," so I have been submerged in listening to Godar's oratorical for several days.