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Marcia Battat Greets Performers at the Jan. 26 in Napa (N. Rorick photo)

MOSTLY MOZART WITH A LITTLE BEETHOVEN AND SOR IN NAPA

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sharing the stage with a local diva is a tough task for even seasoned musicians, but Napa College faculty soprano Christina Howell stole the show Jan. 26 when the Napa Valley Music Associates presented an eclectic program of mostly Mozart music. Somehow compositions of Sor and Beethoven joined the mix.

Before an audience of 200 in the downtown Napa First Presbyterian Church Ms. Howell appeared twice with pianist Mark Osten, singing three of Mozart’s most popular songs, and the “Et Incarnates Est” aria from the C Minor Mass, K. 427. Her resonant voice was heard well in the upper registers in the problematic acoustics of the large church, and big thematic projection was needed and came with “An Chloe” (K 524) and the nostalgic and lyrical “Abendempfindug”, K. 523.

Ms. Howell’s ebullient personality and verbal introductions from the stage enhanced her last song, “Das Veilchen” (K. 476), pairing well with Mr. Osten’s fluent pianism, though at less than mezzo forte the German words tended to be less clear, at least at the back of the church with its extended reverberation. It was dramatic and convincing singing, agile when the music demanded, and spotlighted three gems from Mozart’s compact group of art songs.

Guitarist Eric Symons then played three Sor works, with one Mozart connection in the Op. 9 Variations on “O’Cara Armonia” from the 1791 Opera “The Magic Flute.” Mr. Symon’s substantial stage presence was equaled by his un-amplified playing, and after a too long spoken introduction his plucked six-string instrument had a resonant and rich sound. He used various speeds of vibrato for effect, and the fast variants with arpeggios were telling. The Etude in B Minor followed, a piece the artist first learned at age 12, and featured symmetrical phrasing and quiet repetitions.

The final Op. 15 Sor Sonata was oddly similar to Mozart’s music, with lots of filigree, upward flourishes that equaled in clarity in contrary descending phrases in much repetition. Mr. Symons played from score but seldom looked at the music. He cradles his instrument as with a young child.

Returning with the deft Mr. Osten’s fine pianism, Ms. Howell soared often into high registers with Melisma in the aria from the Mass, showing impressive emotional power in swirling sound that often echoed the piano line. In her interpretation the work, especially in the cadenza, sounded more Romantic than Classical, and was an afternoon highlight.

Violinist Daniel Lewin joined pianist William Corbett-Jones to close the concert with Beethoven’s G major Romance, Op. 40, and Mozart’s short A Major Sonata, K. 305. Playing from score, Mr. Levin played a lovely introduction to the Romance that quickly shaded flat, but as he found his intonation footing the music (it is often played with orchestra) had more security. Mr. Corbett-Jones, a stellar Beethoven and Mozart specialist with decades of musical triumphs, played with lyrical charm.

The Sonata was performed with the requisite lightness and warm phrasing, and at times the violinist’s line was covered by the piano sound, even with the house instrument’s lid closed . It was playing in the “gallant” style with varied string vibrato, and with Mr. Corbett-Jones playing fetching legato phrases, and trading thematic statements with Mr. Lewin. They clearly have an affinity for this music. This Sonata from the late 1770s is far removed from those of Haydn, and the variations in the second movement were played in a suitably leisurely way, never heavy or demanding on the ear. It was the longest work on the program but it never seemed long.

Following audience applause Impresario Marcia Battat announced Napa Valley Music Associates concerts in March, May and June (dates TBA), and directed listeners to a gratis lavish lobby buffet with wines from the up-and-coming Lekker Napa Vineyards.