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CHAMBER REVIEW

Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson

VOCAL PYROTECHNICS LIGHT UP SCHROEDER HALL

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, August 24, 2014

What could end a wildly successful 10-concert inaugural weekend in SSU’s new Schroeder Hall? A resounding concert of manifold brass, organ and voice that turned out by a wide margin to be the overall audience favorite.

The long Sunday evening event put on display every piece of Schroeder’s vaunted acoustics. Led by organists James David Christie and Julian Wachner, 11 works--from Vivaldi to a new-age organ improvisation and a world premiere--showcased the elegant small hall.

Widely anticipated was Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,” arguably his last work and long a favorite for sopranos. Roy Zajac’s exalted and melodic clarinet playing and Marilyn Thompson’s suave pianism were upstaged by a dramatic performance of the three sections by diva Ruth Ann Swenson. The middle section is always slow and heartfelt, but this performance was beyond my previous hearings, the tone quality going throughout from full brilliance to a velvety smooth, plaintive sound that was continually beguiling. And then the classic structure burst into warm sunshine in the last contrasted section. Ms. Swenson sang with agility and joy, playing with the articulation when she felt capricious. Her stunning performance drove the packed audience to its feet in a roaring ovation.

Brian Wilson’s premiered work, “Stood the Seraphim,” opened the concert in a four-minute triumphal fanfare for brass ensemble and organ. The composer conducted with command and sweep, emphasizing the march-like aspects of the work. Later he directed three canzons of Gabrieli that were a feast of antiphonal sound, with the brass choirs at opposite ends of the hall. In the "Canzon for Double Echo" (also conducted by Mr. Wilson), the extended reverberation time gave the music a kind of glorious syncopation.

A special treat was Mr. Christie’s performance of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto, RV 93. The nature of the polyphonic choral dialog between the two manual divisions was registered well, with a tasteful Baroque touch. The Concerto displayed precise sounds of the two reed stops used in combination with the full organ.

Mr. Wachner played his own “Blue and Green” and “Fanfare Improvisation,” which were both perfectly presented with the registrations he chose and with a meandering church-music flair. He had company in the organ loft when Ms. Swenson and flutist Kathleen Lane Reynolds performed the “Domine Deus” from Vivaldi’s Gloria, and a Handel Sonata for Trombone, with Tony Collins playing the difficult solo part. The introductory phrases in the Vivaldi for the flute were especially enchanting, leading to a congenial and somewhat vocal blend with the organ.

Handel's resplendent “Volate Amon” from the opera seria Ariodante (HWV 23) closed the concert, with Ms. Swenson perched next to Mr. Christie’s organ keyboard and providing the final pyrotechnical salute to the venue. The performance was a tour de force of brilliant vocal virtuosity. Ms. Swenson’s potent and florid dramatic soprano voice wove in and out of the organ line with easy sensitivity and palpable gaiety.

It was an irresistible duo, and both artists were recalled several times, affectionately embracing and enjoying ecstatic applause and louds “bravas” and “bravos.”

James Harrod and Mary Beard contributed to the review