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CHAMBER REVIEW

Soprano Carol Menke

FROM TRIO TO SEXTET

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sonoma State’s estimable Trio Navarro, long at the center of the North Bay chamber music scene, morphed into the Navarro Chamber Players on Nov. 18 in a Weill Hall concert that was both exhilarating and puzzling. The trio’s violinist Roy Malan and cellist Jill Rachuy Brindel were absent. Taking their chairs and more were violinists Joseph Edelberg and Kathryn Marshall, violist Betsy London and SSU faculty cellist Judiyaba. The sole Trio Navarro representative was Marilyn Thompson, who anchored the ensemble at piano.

The first half was devoted solely to Schumann’s E-Flat Major Quintet. In these capable hands, this celebrated work became enigmatic. Though the performance was in every way professional, the splendor of Schumann was defeated by the Weill Hall acoustics. How could this be in a hall now celebrated from Mumbai to Reykjavik? The usual pristine sound of the ensemble was lost when 100 people occupied a hall that seats 1,417 and has a 53-foot ceiling. From a sixth-row center seat, the opening Allegro with the lovely main theme was dull, the instrumental lines cloudy. The top tenor to the piano was only partially audible and didn’t carry.

Moving way back to Row R helped, but now everything in this hard-charging piece was a little distant. The Scherzo was echt Schumann and produced the most distinctive impact. The problem was that Schumann’s lush harmonies, string doublings and constant legato would have been a delight in a full house, but in an essentially empty hall they were bouncing all over. Where is Schroeder Hall when we need it?

Following intermission, the ambiance and acoustical picture sharply changed. Joaquin Turina, a composer familiar to the Navarro, wrote his “Las Musas de Andelucia” in 1942. The ensemble performed six of the nine movements, being joined for two (“Melpómene” and “Erato”) by soprano Carole Menke.

Beginning with Mr. Edelberg and Ms. Thompson playing “Euterpe,” the rhythms were rumba-like but always clean, the light vibrato adding a snazzy touch. Even though Turina was from Seville, there was nothing Spanish in this bright section and the following “Talia,” a slow and amiable suite for string quartet, with a snappy pizzicato ending. Cellist Judiyaba was featured in the easygoing “Polomnia,” where the piano line has a Gershwinesque character. The piece was almost a threnody for cello, with a haunting note at the bottom of the instrument’s register carrying throughout the hall.

Ms. Menke sang the fourth section in high tessitura, accompanied by Ms. Thompson’s block chords, and in powerful Spanish, ended in a thrilling top note. String quartet tremolos introduced the penultimate “Erato” section, where Ms. Menke was again comfortable in her top register with unison strings. The concluding “Caliope” began somberly but sprang to life in a slow and beguiling dance.

Four lovely songs from Vaughan Williams came next, selections from “Along the Field,” with Ms. Menke joined by Mr. Edelberg’s solo violin. It was a perfect combination, especially when in the song “In the Morning,” the descending violin part intertwined with Ms. Menke’s elegant voice.

Three tangos from SSU resident composer Brian Wilson closed the concert. The first, “They Say Hope is Happiness,” features short blocks of sound with the piano weaving in and out. “It Is the Hour” had a syncopated dance-hall flavor with gentle dissonant chords, almost palm court. The slinky “O but Our Treacherous BB Guns” (from Kherdian Songs) was an adventurous composition with the quartet in frequent pizzicato.

All three tangos were gracefully written for the instruments and were a highlight of the evening, earning the composer (who was present) standing applause from performers and audience alike.