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CHAMBER REVIEW
Numina Center for Spirituality and the Arts / Sunday, August 23, 2009
Carol Menke, soprano; Kathleen Reynolds, flute; Roy Zajac, clarinet; Laura McLellan, cello; Norma Brown, piano

AN ARTFUL AFTERNOON

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Numina concert in Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation Aug. 23 was billed as “An Artful Afternoon,” and it was certainly full of art. Canvases by the venerable Boris Ilyn filled the north wall of Farlander Hall, and musical art of many eras—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern—emanated from a performance space along the windowed east, with its view of the church’s cloister. The only distraction was the relentless hum of a refrigerator from the kitchen, tempered somewhat by the post-concert hors d’oeuvres therein contained.

Farlander is the church’s dining hall, designed for eating rather than music, but its linoleum floor and high ceiling, to say nothing of its restful view, offer a pleasant listening experience, oddly enhanced by large papier mâché figures of St. Francis, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa gazing benevolently down from on high.

The subtitle of the concert was “Chamber Music with the Locals,” in this case Carol Menke, soprano, Kathleen Reynolds, flute, Roy Zajac, clarinet, Laura McLellan, cello, and the esteemed pianist Norma Brown. All five are well known to Sonoma County audiences, either as members of the Santa Rosa Symphony or as frequent soloists.

Soprano, flute, cello and piano started the afternoon with a svelte performance of two German arias by Handel. The lyrics of the first, “Süsse Stille,” were particularly appropriate to the late summer afternoon and the friendly, room-filling crowd: “Sweet stillness, gentle source / Of peaceful composure.” Menke sang the gorgeous melody mezzo voce, her voice free of any stress or strain. As always, her pronunciation was impeccable, and her intonation spot on.

Reynolds’ flute obbligato in the second aria, “Meine Seele hört im sehen,” was equally assured, and the interplay between soprano and flute was a joy to hear. Both arias evoked simplicity and happiness, coupled with masterful compositional skill.

The composer Philip Parker, still very much alive, exhibits many of the same talents as the great German master. His “Games” for flute and clarinet likewise offers simplicity and happiness, albeit at a faster pace. Each of the children’s games depicted in this four-movement piece—Leap Frog, Follow the Leader, Hop and Tag—finds its musical counterpart in the ingenious interplay between the instruments. In “Leap Frog,” for example, the one leaps over the other, and in “Follow the Leader,” the two take turns leading and following. Reynolds and Zajac performed this inventive duet to the hilt, conjuring up images of children racing across a playground.

The first half concluded with three songs for soprano and clarinet by one of Beethoven’s lesser known contemporaries, Ludwig Spohr. The first two—“Sei still, mein Herz” (Be still, my heart) and “Das heimliche Lied” (The secret song)—were typically tragic Romantic works, with the clarinet lending a plangent tone to the proceedings; but the last, “Zwiegesang” (Two songs in one), was a delight. Menke (playing the part of a girl) and Zajac (a bird) enacted their roles beautifully, each one complementing the other’s lines to Brown’s steady accompaniment.

More oddities were in store for the second half, which began with Ravel’s rarely performed “Chansons madécasses” for soprano, flute, cello and piano. These three “Songs of Madagascar,” written in 1925, are remarkable for their use of exotic musical themes and their expression of colonial guilt. Lyrics such as “Do not trust the whites!” are well removed from Romantic lieder.

The first song, “Nahandove,” began with a beautiful cello solo, expertly played by McLellan on her resonant instrument. The ensuing love story was well suited to Menke’s range, and Reynolds’ piccolo added a humorous touch. The next, “Aoua,” the warning about whites, was impressively threatening. The last, “Il est doux,” about lying under a leafy tree in the hot afternoon, was likewise slow, voluptuous and languid.

Breaking free from torpor, the concert concluded with a lively performance of a Haydn trio for flute, cello and piano, deftly played by all. Brown, who has charmed Sonoma County audiences for more than 50 years, shows no signs of slowing down. She hit all the notes with clear dynamics and phrasing, leading the charge through the sprightly Allegro opening movement, to the lilting Andantino second, and finally the finger-twisting Vivace assai. The performance was wonderful, a fitting end to an artful afternoon.