December 31, 2021: Twin Christmas Choral Concerts at West Texas A&M School of Music

WTAMU Chamber Singers Christmas Concert

Two Christmas concerts at WTAMU School of Music, Dec 4th and 5th respectively, definitely amped up the Xmas spirit while infusing the listeners with a healthy dose of quality music.

The first, on Dec. 4th, and performed by the Chamber Singers, was a mixtue of classical and contemporary, the latter featuring seven numbers either composed or arranged by Dr. Sean Pullen, WTAMU choral conductor.

Two of the classical works deserve comment: Dixit Maria by Hans Leo Hassler; Adoramus te Christie by Quirino Gasparini.

Hassler (1564-1612) served as a bridge to the Baroque in German music. During his time in Venice he knew both Gabrieli’s, and was influenced by their harmonics, reflected in the lush beauty of Dixit Maria. Typically his compositions, at the height of the Reformation, could be sung in both Catholic and Protestant churches.

Gasparini (1721-1778) composed primarily church music and operas. He knew Mozart, and his work, because of its haunting ethereal quality, was attributed to Wolfy until 1922.

Any Christmas program, whether local or national, on media or in-person, typically blairs White Christmas or Winter Wonderland ad nauseam. But there was only one place to hear the magical sounds of Hassler and Gasparini, and it was here in Cowboy Country.

Sunday, December 5, was the annual Christmas concert of the WTAMU choirs and symphony orchestra, joined this year by the choir from Canyon High School. Downloaded free tickets were required for entry, and both programs (4 and 7) were fully subscribed, a testimony to the popularity of the event.

The program featured its traditional staples, namely audience singing and amazing ensemble performance, but also had surprises.

After the University Chorale took over after the audience singing of O Come All Ye Faithful, Welcome Yule by Charles Hubert Wilson Parry set the table for a musical feast. Two contemporary religious works of an importunate vein followed: Nunc Dimittis by Gyorgy Orban; Adoramus te, Christie by Eric Barnum. Orban was born in Romania but lives in Hungary while Barnum is choral director at Drake University.

Then the combined Chorale and Collegiate Choir performed eine kleine nachtmusik by Mozart in Veni Sancta Spiritus, a bold, high energy hymn/homily that takes listeners on a merry ride all over the dynamics map.

Then in the worlds of Monty Python, “Now for something completely different!” the choirs sang a piece of pure Americana, Go Tell It on the Mountain arranged by Stacey Gibbs.

Then, after an audience singfest of The First Nowell, the first surprise.

Rositza Goza: “Meditation” from Thais

Rositza Goza, first violinist of the Harrington String Quartet, literally made her instrument sing as she, along with the WTAMU Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Mark Bartley, played the Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet.

Thais, a pagan devotee of Venus and hedonism is converted to Christianity and is wrestling with the spiritual urge to become a Cenobite in order to achieve true spirituality. She ultimately resolves to go into seclusion and into the desert.

The music is painfully poignant, an expression of the spiritual and emotional turmoil raging in the heart of the beautiful Thais. And never has the Meditation achieved a more beautiful and sensitive expression than from Rositza’s bow.

Combined Choirs and Symphony Orchestra

But wait, there’s more in the way of surprises. How about an original, five part Chroal Symphony/Mass from a real-life Texan, Taylor Scott Davis! And, true to a long-standing concert tradition, the choir from an area high school is invited to perform the large number with the college kids. This year the choir was that of Canyon High School, and they appeared much at ease singing with the older students.

Of the five parts of the Magnificat, four are in Latin and only one, Shall I Rejoice is in English.

The first section, Magnificat, is high energy, not high church, with some lines purely melodic, some contrapuntal, and some in unison.

Eleisha Miller sang the second part, as noted above, with the accompaniment of complex orchestration.

Part III, Et Misericordia, again featured Rositza Goza, whose violin played a lyrical descant, a melody above the medoly and a deft touch by the composer.

The Deposuit, Part IV, features a male opening with all parts then coalescing melodically.

Gloria Patri, Part V, has a thunderous opening which transitions into a male/female echochamber. After an instrumental interlude, the males state the lines beginning Sicut erat in principio several times, a theme taken up by the females. The finale is a protracted sequence of Amens, decorated with chimes and cymbals, with a final last syllable that is sustained ad infinitum!

The final carole was Hark the Herald Angels Sing with the choirs putting an exclammation mark at the end with phrases from Go Tell It on the Mountain and Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.

This concert was, in a word, spectacular! All elements worked in tandem, noted especially in Davis’s Magnificat where the high school students were, like their eollegiate colleagues, flawless in singing liturgical Latin.

A comparison can be drawn with the nationally-televised Christmas concert at Belmont University in Nashville. WTAMU haas an articulation agreement with Belmont in some music production and music business fields, and so the two are sister schools insofar as music majors are concerned.

This year the Belmont concert did not feature a well-known recording artist, but focussed on the students, some six hundred of whom were on stage. And, the program was varied, with Christmas songs ranging from traditional to country.

But, WTAMU’s program was far more complex, and the quality of sound was on par or even surpassing that of Belmont.

The only negative about this annual concert is that the audience now has to wait a year for another.

But, there’s plenty of music and the arts between now and then. Out here on the High Plains, which Georgia O’Keeffe said poetically is a land where the sky meets the howling wind we enjoy a quality of the arts that is unsurpassed.

That’s why we say, at the end of 2021, and in the hopes of a safer, saner, more art-filled world in 2022,

Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

December 26, 2021: The Amarillo Symphony and the Amarillo Master Chorale present Handel’s “Messiah”

The Amarillo Symphony & Master Chorale present Handel’s Messiah: December 3, 2021

There’s something inherently compelling about Handel‘s Messiah that inspire its annual, sometimes semi-annual performances in English and German all over the western world.

There are perhaps several reasons for this perennial popularity, but at its core the soul-stirring music and lofty message resonate with the human spirit, giving it wings to apprehend the infinite.

The Amarillo Symphony, led by guest conductor Peter Bay of the Austin Symphony, with soloists Jocelyn Hansen, soprano, Cara Collins, mezzo, Eric Barry, tenor and Andrew Craig Brown, baritone, and a chorus of the Amarillo Master Chorale, directed by Dr. Nate Frymyl, certainly gave those wings to a lucky audience the night of December 3 at the Globe News Center.

The program was abridged, but included popular numbers, the selections possessing a continuity leading up to the finale of the Hallelujah Chorus.

There are perhaps two basic ways to conduct Messiah: legato with eliding phrases; staccato with distinct separation. Peter Bay chose the latter, which more nearly embraced the composer’s intent, and the orchestra followed that direction flawlessly.

Hometown fave, tenor Eric Barry, set the bar extremely high in his opening aria, Comfort Ye My People.” Eric’s ability to sustain the E’s and F’s to inhuman lengths, and then effortlessly take it up a couple of steps is truly a Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World). That quality most certainly makes him Metropolitan-bound and is reminiscent of Luciano Pavarotti at Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal.

The selected works, however, shortchanged bass-baritone Andrew Craig Brown, who was unable to sing the most powerful work for his part, The Trumpet Shall Sound and the Dead Shall be Raised from I Corinthians 15.

The Master Chorale filled the auditorium in the choruses, each part making a precise, on-key entrance, and singing the complicated runs as one voice. Both For Unto Us a Child is Born as well as And the Glory of the Lord were thrilling.

The astute direction of Dr. Nate Frymyl appeared throughout in a consistency of phrasing and balance of parts. As mentioned in the review of Mozart’s Requiem, the director has to turn down the volume on the male voices. Choral directors everywhere would love to have that problem.

And it all came together powerfully in the electrifying Hallelujah Chorus. The four soloists, as opposed to many occasions when they’ve just mutely stood, joined their own voice to the singing.

If the immediate effect was majestic, the overall result was to infuse the most inveterate Scrooge with the spirit of Christmas present. The Amarillo Symphony, Master Chorale, soloists, and yes, the audience reaction did credit to Handel and the mighty message of his work, which, another Stupor Mundi, he dashed off in only twenty-four days.

But that’s the way we roll here on the Comancheria, and why we say in the spirit of the holiday season: Keep Amarillo Artsy; Keep Austin Weird; Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

December 14, 2021: Birth and Death – A World Premier and a Lamentation from the Amarillo Symphony

On November 19th and 20th the Amarillo Symphony and Master Chorale, directed by conductor Jacomo Bairos, who lifted his baton the final time, and accompanied by extraordinary soloists, feted audiences to a new birth (a world premier), an amazing memorial service (Mozart’s Requiem), and all good things musically in between.

The symphony and soloist J’Nai Bridges melded perfectly to premier Chris Rogerson’s Sacred Earth. Rogerson, one of America’s most prolific composers composer-in-residence for the Amarillo Symphony has had six works commissioned and/or premiered by the symphony. That’s an outlay to rival Georgia O’Keefe’s Panhandle palette.

At thirty-three Chris is just getting started: let’s hope he doesn’t pull an exit like the other composer on the program and leave us unrequited.

The work consists of four parts, three drawn from the works of three Romantic poets, and the fourth, the perennial and always-pertinent Dona Nobis Pacem.

The text of the first work, The Lamb by William Blake, intermingled the themes of God, Creation, Nature and Perfection.

The Whale, by Joseph Edwards Carpenter, is a majestic evocation of endurance through the most adverse environments, apt metaphors for the travails along life’s journey.

“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers, by Emily Dickinson, portrays hope as a little bird residing in the human soul and sings without asking anything in return.

The final movement, Dona Nobis Pacem, is of unknown origin, but probably derived from the Agnus Dei of the Catholic Mass and expresses the hope of all creation: “God Grant Us Peace!”

J’Nai Bridges – wow! The privilege the symphony and audience had to heard this work sung for the first time by a silky voice laced with liquid gold! We fondly remember her Mahler in a previous appearance.

Just two of her Metropolitan Opera roles – Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s esoteric Akhnaten and a Covid-cancelled Carmen testify to her immense lyric capability. Her interpretation of Rogerson’s work fit perfectly with that of Maestro Bairos, and the orchestra’s dynamics showcased her talents to the max!

And to think that here on the High Plains we would be treated to a world premier by a world-class artist and soon-to-be world-renown composer! There’s a lot more culture here than two-steppin’ to Ferlin Husky.

Speaking of the conductor, the Mozart Requiem would be Jacomo’s swan song, after serving as artistic director for eight years. We say, Obrigado Senhor! May beautiful music attend your steps and bless all you encounter.

As to the Requiem, there’s enough Magnum Mysterium to make a movie. Wait-it’s already happened with Amadeus. The debate continues concerning which parts Mozart completed before his death, and which are done by Sussmayer and Eybler, either together or individually. And there’s the myriad mutations and emendations effected by more contemporary composers, trying to reclaim the pure Mozart sound.

Whatever version, the Amarillo Symphony, and the Amarillo Master Chorale, under the astute direction of Dr. Nate Frymyl, got it right! The collaboration was both monumental and epic, a fitting memorial to the proximal 230th anniversary of Mozart’s death. The timing is conspicuous.

The script for the Requiem derives from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, and even though the words are staid and rote, the artistry of Mozart elevates them to vocal transcendence.

Mezzo Amanda Crider and tenor Dominic Armstrong were most assertive of the soloists, though perhaps by direction.

A brigade of basses and tenors, an embarrassment of riches for any adult chorus, impacted the Dies Irae and Confutatis with great force. The contrast with the plaintive Voca me cum benedictus couldn’t have been more striking.

The quality of this performance doubtless elicited a smile from Mozart’s shade, a fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy. And, what was delivered by the Amarillo Symphony, the Master Chorale and soloists bore equivalence to similar performances on the great venues of the US and across the pond.

Such sublime artistry reinforces a sense of cultural superiority. That’s why we say, elevated and refined at this holiday season…

Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

November 25, 2021: WTAMU Faculty Recital; Vesselin Todorov-Viola

Vesselin Todorov – Viola; Jessica Osborn- Piano; WTAMU – Nov 20, 2021

Lucky attendees partook of a free cultural feast the afternoon of November 20 in the Fine Arts Recital Hall, which featured violist Vesselin Todorov, joined by pianist Jessica Osborn, Helen Blackburn, flute and Mina Lavcheva, violin.

Todorov, longtime member of the Harrington String Quartet and member of the university’s music faculty, figured in all three pieces: Sonata for Viola and Piano by Rebecca Clarke; Piano Trio in F-sharp minor by Robert Fuchs; and Prelude, Recitatif et Variations by Maurice Durufle.

British-American composer Rebecca Clarke, viola virtuoso, composer, and one of the first female members of a professional orchestra, has a compelling biography. We are richer for her few compositions, though poorer for her sporadic output.

Her Sonata for Viola and Piano, tied for first in a competition out of 72 entrants, but many of the judges decided that Clarke was a pen name for the declared winner, Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, as no woman could compose such a work! The fight continues……

The premier at Berkshire was well-received, and marks the beginning of a three-year compositional peak, after which Clarke composed little.

The Impetuoso opens with the viola singing a lyrical spring aria as the piano, whose part is of equal difficulty, both compliments and encourages.

Todorov applied a mute for the Vivace, which his Harrington fellows insisted was the composer’s intent. The resulting mellowness was punctuated by frequent pizzicatos, racing towards an abrupt conclusion.

The Adagio is both evocative and sensual, restating themes from the first movement with Todorov demonstrating the full range of his instrument’s voice.

Thanks Vesco for introducing us to Rebecca Clarke. Your performance was a true credit to her composition.

The Austrian composer Robert Fuchs was a composer and professor of music theory at the Vienna Conservatory. His piano trios, though highly-regarded, were never popular because the composer didn’t market them well.

His Trio in F sharp minor for piano, violin and viola was one of his last works.

The Allegro presents a dark, pensive quality with a ferocious conclusion.

The Andante grazioso takes a step back with the strings almost taunting one another contrapuntally.

The Allegretto scherzando has a repetitive triadal sequence, two short and one long, that is echoed in all three instruments, which happily ends with a whimsical fillip.

Any levity is lost in the Allegro giusto, which, except for wistful interludes, exerts a dark determination throughout.

Perhaps the composer was lamenting the demise of empire, and, with the gift/curse of artistic prescience, the rise of Fascism. A longer life would have seen his worst fears realized.

The final work on the program, Prelude, Recitatif et Variations by Maurice Durufle, played by a flute, piano and viola trio. This work, composed in 1928, was prior to his lifetime posting as organist at St. Etienne du Mont and his teaching position at the Paris Conservatory.

The short, approximately eleven minute work, opens with a piano dirge followed by a brooding, evocative viola. The flute, initially light, folds into the melancholic mood of the other instruments.

A sequence of flute statements follows, with viola responses, reflecting the composers penchant for plainsong, which he grew up singing in the Rouen cathedral choir. Vigorous piano arpeggios and viola pizzicatos come to a sudden stop, with the new theme turning dark until the pace builds to the finale.

What a treat, hearing what amounted to a world-class performance! I only wish that more knew about this event, and that a little biographical information could have been included about the artists.

That we in the heart of Cowboy Country can hear chamber works by Clarke, Fuchs and Durufle, while gridiron mayhem still rages, is testimony to the fact that the arts, after an absence of a year and a half, are indeed back!

On this Thanksgiving Day, along with so much else, we can be thankful for the wonderful anomaly here on the High Plains of a truly vibrant, national-class caliber of the fine arts.

That’s why, once again, and in a true holiday spirit, we can say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

March 6, 2020: Harrington String Quartet

Harrington String Quartet
“Dream” Concert
Northern Recital Hall
Feb 9, 2020

Originally planned as one part of a three-event effort, the review of this incredible performance, even though a month out, deserves stand-alone status.

On February 7, the internationally-acclaimed Harrington String Quartet demonstrated why it has garnered that recognition, playing a concert of Gershwin, Verdi and Dvorak entitled Dream.

Lullaby represents Gershwin’s first foray in the classical field. Composed in 1919, the piece wasn’t published until years after his death,

The work has a beautiful, slow, waltz-like flow, and at times each instrument sings in a distinctive, yet harmonious blend.

At 4:15 a cello solo announces a different theme which then assumes the same easy rhythm, producing an almost hypnotic effect, probably inspiring the program title, Dream. Those associating Gershwin only with Rhapsody in Blue need to appreciate the other side of this American genius.

Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor was the composer’s only venture into chamber music, and derived from the composer’s fear of boredom!

In Naples in 1873, with the production of Aida going full throttle, the leading diva had to take three week’s sick leave. Guiseppe had nothing better to do so he decided he might as well write a string quartet. So, Voila!

Even so the composer, among the few who heard and applauded the piece, disparaged the work, which wasn’t published for another three years.

The first three movements, not surprisingly, echo themes of Aida.

The fourth movement, Scherzo-Fuga, doesn’t. This section has punch and energy, and, though there is a thematic change, it is only temporary, and the charge carries onward to the finale. The title may offer some clue, since Scherzo in Italian means “joke,” and, in the context of a program entitled Dream, perhaps this becomes the bad dream.

But, Verdi, almost unique among composers, doesn’t allow the second violin to play second fiddle, but gave the instrument almost equal standing. Evgeny Zvonnikov, HSQ’s spectacular second, certainly met this challenge and seized the opportunity to let his strings sing.

So, next time you’re bored, and facing forced down time, compose a string quartet. But, show special love to the second violin!

Antonin Dvorak composed his String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, “American” in only sixteen days in Spillville, Iowa, after finishing his New World Symphony. So, under the program umbrella of Dream, this work becomes a nod to the American dream.

Though the composer openly admired American folk music, professing respect for Black, Native American or white settlers, actual connections in the work only tease the listener.

In fact, the only truly American tune is in the third movement and is that of a local song bird, which the composer maintains is one type and ornithologists say is another. In this small instance, perhaps science rises over art.

This work has become one of the most popular in the quartet repertoire, not only in this country, but around the word. And, to hear Dvorak’s work played in Northern Recital Hall, the world’s most advanced, acoustically-adjustable sound space, was transcendent!

And when in the heart of the Comancheria and Cowboy Country locals can hear world-class chamber music played by world-class musicians is an indication of something special.

That “something” is that this zone of the Texas High Plains is just flat-out (get it?) artsy!

That’s why we always say, no pun intended, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!”

February 21, 2020: Fabuloso! The Music Dept at Amarillo College Delivers!

Dr. Nathan Frmyl
Beethoven Concert
AC Concert Hall
Jan 28, 2020

Two recent recitals at the Amarillo College Concert Hall Theatre illustrate why the fine arts thrive here in the middle of nowhere.

On Jan. 28, Dr. Nathan Frmyl, AC’s Director of Choral Music, showcased his virtuosity by performing an all-Beethoven piano recital, as part of the 2019-2020 AC Piano Series.

And, in case the boast hasn’t yet registered, AC is the only venue in Texas hosting all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in celebration of the maestro’s 250th birthday.

On Feb. 9 the music faculty held a late winter recital, emphatically demonstrating why AC is rated as one of the few fully-accredited community college music programs in the state.

Nate’s program was unusual in that it consisted of three works either thought unfinished or published against Beethoven’s wishes. The latter situation explains the puzzling opus numbers in comparison to the years of composition.

The first two works were Sonatas # 19 and #20. One theory is that these leitsonatas were composed as gifts for friends or assigned to students, which would explain the composer’s reluctance to publish.

#20 has a very Viennese quality, without any dark undercurrent that color much of his oeuvre. #19 evokes a different character as the Andante is solemn but the Rondo Allegro, by contrast, is very perky and arpeggiated.

Nate’s masterful exposition on the Shigeru Kawai presented a distinct separation between the pieces, which would continue to the last two works on the program.

The Sonata in E-minor, Op 90, numerically tagged #27, embodies more technical experimentation as the work dates from late in the composer’s middle period. And, in contrast to the first two works, here a strong emotional content emerges, a restless brooding that bespeaks loneliness and longing.

But, in the second movement, perhaps Ludwig has found love as we hear a discernible happiness that foreshadows Schubert.

Finally, the numerous attendees received a humorous treat in the Rondo a Capriccio Op 129, entitled Rage Over A Lost Penny. The title is attributed to Beethoven’s hagiographer and biographer Anton Schindler, whom music historians have accused of a number of apocryphal emendations.

Beethoven’s description, “in the Gypsy style,” stems from his own neologism, which modern audiences more readily compare to a Looney Tunes sketch involving Roadrunner’s taunting of Wile E. Coyote. Bottom line: this piece was just fun!

The general opinion of pianists holds that Sonata #20 is the easiest to play. However valid that assertion, Nate Fryml made it purely academic as he performed all of the pieces with consummate artistic ease.

But, there’s more as Dr. Fryml and his colleagues demonstrated on Feb 9 why AC has such an outstanding music program, which helps account for Artsy Amarillo.

Eric Barry & Nate Fryml
Faculty Recital
AC Concert Hall Theatre

In the program’s first number Nate accompanied tenor Eric Barry in Nate’s rendition of Shenendoah: Away Home. Originally composed two years ago, this adaptation maintains the stirring spirit of the iconic Shenendoah while enhancing the piece musically. At one point Barry hit and held a high A which rolled up to a B-flat. That certainly got everyone’s attention!

Dr. Diego Caetano
Faculty Recital
AC Concert Hall Theatre

Then, Dr. Diego Caetano, professor of piano, continued educating locals about his Brazilian countryman Heitor Villa Lobos, playing his Floral Suite. These three sections move from summer lassitude to the ominous sounds of the rain forest.

Since just the piano corpus of Villa Lobos totals over 600 works, Diego still has plenty to share with us. Guess that’s job security for the next fifty years!

There followed four ensembles, two of the “classical” designation, one Jazz and the last a hybrid mash-up.

Cassandra Hussey
Kay Fristoe
Puntita Panyadee
Faculty Recital

Cassandra Hussey, harp, Kay Fristoe, flute and Puntita Panyadee, piano, played Mozart’s Concerto for Piano, Flute and Harp, a nice touch on any stage in the Comancheria.

Katy Moore
Tiffany McDaniel
Camille Day Nies
Russell Steadman
Diego Caetano
Faculty Recital

Kay Moore, violin, Tiffany McDaniel, violin, Camille Day Nies,viola, Russell Steadman, cello and Diego Caetano, piano, combined their talents to play the Allegro non troppo from Brahms . This involved movment has a strong opening theme which reappears throughout and emphatically finishes the section.

Question: when do we get to hear the entire work?

Jim Laughlin
Austin Brazille
Rito Monge
Paul Galindo
Faculty Recital

Then, on a different tack, Dr. Jim Laughlin led a special group of former students in a jazz work by Chick Correa entitled Spain. A few years ago, this ensemble consisting of Austin Brazille on guitar, Rito Monge on bass and Paul Galindo playing drums, participated in a national contest only to be beaten out by a little school named Julliard!

Because of AC’s success at this national level, there is now a separate category for community colleges. What does that illuminate about the caliber and quality of this music program?

Katy Moore
Tiffany McDaniel
Camille Day Nies
Russell Steadman
Brandon Borup
Faculty Recital

Jessie Sieff, a nationally-known percussionist, arranged a work for solo snare with the enticing moniker Chopstakovich. An AC quintet of Katy Moore and Tiffany McDaniel on violin, Camille Day Nies on viola, Russell Steadman on cello and Brandon Borup on snare drums took that to a new level in Sieff’s arrangement of the second movement of String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, dominated by Borup’s pyrotechnic paradiddles.

The traps imparted a wonderfully light touch to the Russian master, leaving audience members with an unexpected reaction to a Shostokovich work: a smile!

So, in understanding the prevalence and pervasiveness of the fine arts in this unlikely locale, prime consideration must go to the extraordinary music department of our community college.

When it affords us the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, attracts professional artists from all over the world, then offers to showcase the talents of its faculty, it makes it easy to say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

Feb. 7, 2020: Polarzied Panhandle Plays

January 25 provided the opportunity to enjoy polarized, not polarizing, plays in the Panhandle: the opera Our Town at WTAMU; Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at Amarillo Little Theatre’s Main Stage.

The only commonality is that each is an iteration of a classic. Otherwise, the contrast between the two, intense dramatic opera and loosely-defined mystery comedy was so stark as to produce cultural whiplash.

Curtain Call
“Our Town”
Tenor Justin Wiiliamson taking a bow

The opera Our Town, conveniently sequential to the fall WTAMU theatrical production, is a Ned Rorem distillation of Wilder’s play.

The opera, as well as the play, portrays Americana as a cycle of life, a New England Everyman where the ordinary is extolled as heroic as all simply try to cope with this epic of the everyday until all finish the course.

The music wasn’t for amateurs. Tenor Justin Williamson, as the Stage Manager, had five arias! But, due to the superlative direction of Sarah Beckham-Turner, no one voice or role otherwise dominated, as this is the saga of how individual identity is ultimately subsumed into the greater whole.

Three Fundamentalist hymns served both as adornment and exposition, all parts harmoniously blending, although the church choral master, the town’s token but always inebriated artist, didn’t think so at choir practice, exhorting his vocalists to “Leave Shouting to the Methodists!”

The acting was restrained, therefore relatable. The genius of the both the play and the opera is that audience members find themselves in the characters.

Minimalism also defined the set design, much like Isamu Noguchi’s award-winning set for the ballet Appalachian Spring.

Disparate voices, each having their own song, somehow coalesce in communal harmony as ultimately Our Town, over peaks and through valleys, pulses inexorably forward. Life goes on.

The opera was profound, an appropriate lyrical companion to the stage play. Congrats to SBT for a deft touch in directing, and to guest conductor Keith Chambers for persuading a young group artists and musicians to blend rather than showcase their talent.

This area looks forward to further productions from the director, and from very young James Reilly Turner, who now will always have an operatic credit on his resume.

Curtain Call

In the words of Monty Python, “Now for sometime completely different!” Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and the Three Stooges, who seem to have Dissociative Identity Disorder as they morph through some forty-two characters between them.

The plot’s theme parallels Dracula: Risen from the Grave. Lord Baskerville’s death, his face a rictus of terror surrounded by giant paw prints inspires the notion of the hound’s return to the Moors and thus a call to Holmes.

The plot thickens upon the arrival of the last Baskerville heir, a “Howdy Ya’ll” Texan played by Brooks Boyett. Well, we could understand him, especially against the spectrum of English dialects and accents from Cockney to Oxfordian.

Comedic chemistry proved most reactive while timing was down to the nano-second. Nothing elementary about this play as it required seasoned, talented actors, astute direction, and a skillful stage crew to transform the cast during frenetic scene changes. Director Callie Hisek in this play definitely exhibited a flair for the funny, as she did for the provocative in Ada and the Engine.

Congratulations to ALT for a run of sold-out performances. As community theatres across the country exist on life supports, ALT, because of shows like this, is vibrant and thriving.

The fact that we, in Bomb City, can in one day see such a diversity of quality theatre and opera as Our Town and Baskerville, makes it easy to say, and without drama, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

Durations Trio: Jan. 23, 2020 – Chamber Music Amarillo

Durations Trio
Annie Chalex Boyle, Violin
Susan Wass, Piano
Kevin Wass, Tuba
CMA: Fibonacci Space
Jan 23, 2020

Attending the CMA-affiliated performance of the Durations Trio at the Fibonacci Space, January 23, reminded me of the premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913.

The Parisians, expecting classical ballet and typical nineteenth-century music reacted so violently to the atonal dissonance, the jarring arythmia and the spasticity of the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky that police had to quell a riot. Too much of the too new.

In contrast , an appreciative Amarillo audience applauded a crystal note concert by the Durations Trio, whose members played the violin, piano and tuba, challenging traditional concepts of musical form and harmony with the shock of the new.

In fact, violinist and Texas Tech faculty member Annie Chalex Boyle said there were two reasons that the Lubbock-based group chose to stage what amounted to a premier performance in Amarillo: an intimate performance space; an open and appreciative audience.

Bear that thought in mind.

Tubist Kevin Wass related how Durations grew from an ad hoc experiment playing the work Durations by American Morton Feldman, a major 20th century composer whose works have traction only among specialists.

That’s because Feldman created a new paradigm, to emphasize the note, not notes, tonal shadings, not harmony, sustainable sound and the unexpected in rhythm.

In fact, according to one listener, the greatest pleasure in this recital came from the impact of the unexpected, which took her into a zone suffused in a soundscape of atonal Zen.

But, returning to the genesis narrative, the first challenge for Wass was to find artists willing to take the challenge of Feldman. Wife and professional colleague Susan played the piano, but the search for that special violinist resolved on Annie Chalex Boyle, who agreed to play her part for Durations.

That single performance proved so successful that the group decided to continue playing as the Durations Trio and building of repertoire of hyper-minimalist, modern music.

Their performance in Amarillo included three parts of Feldman’s Durations, done antiphonally and triangulated in a small space where the sounds softly touch but don’t linger. The note, as both process and product, created a sensation at once edgy and elevating.

Fratres by Estonian minimalist Arvo Part makes the third time in the last year that local audiences have heard works by this composer. Sustained dissonance and vigorous bariolaging evoke the cold taiga, sometimes still and sometimes turbulent. Since the Panhandle has seen little snow this winter, Part has created, musically, an arctic white-out.

Two of the works on the program were extreme modifications from the Baroque period: J.P. von Westoff’s Sonata No. 3; J.S. Bach’s from St. Matthew’s Passion. Face it, neither composer created with the tuba in mind, like Amilcare Ponchielli who didn’t envision dancing hippos and crocodiles to his Dance of the Hours in the first Fantasia. Both were decidedly different and definitely out-of-the-box, but they worked!

The last number was by American Pauline Oliveros, a visionary composer like Feldman who took minimalism to a level she called “Deep Listening.”

From a work called Thirteen Changes (1986), which, curiously, has thirteen segments, the audience drew numbers and then tried to guess which title was just played. And the winners: Standing Naked in the Monnlight; A Solitary Worm in an Empty Coffin.

You just had to be there to get the effect of the sustained violin note, bowed without noticeable break, the Fazioli Grand’s strings plucked and a sometimes melodic tuba.

If modern visual art asks the viewer to see reality differently, Durations Trio asked the same of the listener. And, as with the visual arts, so also with music: the avant-garde of one generation becomes the standard of the next.

And to think , we heard Durations Trio first in Amarillo, thanks to the artists and CMA artistic director David Palmer. Honored by their performance, we were more honored that Amarillo was chosen over home-town Lubbock because of a discerning audience.

Which all but makes the case when we say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

January 26, 2020: Concerto Extraordinaire – Jan. 11

The confluence of high culture within the heart of the Comancheria isn’t a common perception. But, in Amarillo it is the norm, but on January 11 the ordinary became extraordinary, in Chamber Music Amarillo’s Concerto Extraordinaire at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens.

Michael Palmer Conductor
The Amarillo Virtuosi
Concerto Extraordinaire

The title of the concert certainly delivered! Maestro Michael Palmer, former associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, directed the Amarillo Virtuosi, a group of local professional musicians, who, along with soloists Guglielmo Manfredi and Diego Caetano, treated several hundred avid fine arts aficionados to the truly extraordinary!

The first work on the program was Haydn’s Symphony 104, his last, and termed the London Symphony. Although he composed this symphony along with a dozen others by the Thames, the moniker is attached to this particular piece.

Poppa Haydn, the “Father of the Symphony,” began with a ham-fisted quatrain that sounded like an army of orcs bent on destruction of middle earth. But he then segued into a sequence of flippant themes, doubtless taunting the listeners from the hereafter with “Fooled you! Ha! Ha!” The old man had a wicked sense of humor.

Witness the almost larghetto Andante which the director and his musicians periodically pulsed for contrast, and the downbeat-heavy Minuetto. Poppa was all over the place.

But, in the Finale, a strong triad intro is followed by a maelstrom of competing themes, striated by extensive arpeggiation from the strings and emphatic intonations by the winds and tympani.

So, in the place where once buffalo roamed free by the millions, we heard the sound of 18th-century European courts, played with elegance and grace.

Speaking of which, the Renaissance writer Baldasare Castiglione in one of the first true self-improvement books in history, The Courtier, maintained that the key to changing oneself was the acquisition of new habits which by practice could be done with spezzatura: effortless grace.

The audience was privileged to hear an example of musical spezzatura, in the Horn Concerto #1 by Richard Strauss.

This work is dependent on having a horn virtuoso and, while that may sound like a comment on the obvious, the reality is that true artists of this instrument are indeed a Rara Avis. And “Guli” Manfedi, Professor of Music at WTAMU, fits that role to perfection.

Along with spezzatura, the word “mellifluous” comes to mind in describing Dr. Manfedi’s performance. At times this piece exudes an almost martial pomposity while at others is redolent of Romanticism. The intricate runs were smooth and distinct, with the orchestra and artist in perfect sync.

And how many places other than cowboy country could one hear a Strauss horn concerto on a January Saturday night? Extraordinary!

Diego Caetano
Concerto Extraordinaire

Finally, as homage to Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Dr. Diego Caetano, Amarillo College Professor of Music, performed the 4th Piano Concerto. Written in 1805/06, it was premiered in 1808 along with the 5th and 6th Symphonies.

The composer’s increasing deafness was becoming public knowledge, but in these works one starts to hear Beethoven taking inspiration from that inner cosmic realm, hearing the “music of the spheres” that would later have such ethereal expression.

This piece opens with a piano solo, joined by the orchestra, which becomes quite assertive. A tetradal sequence is introduced which is employed throughout the Allegro and is recapitulated in the Rondo.

#4 covers the entire emotional spectrum, from angry and ominous to manically joyous. The challenge of the frequent, some would say constant, mood shifts of Beethoven were accommodated by both Diego and Director Michael Palmer with a perfect balance between soloist and accompaniment.

What an extraordinary performance, and what a night to be enjoy the fine arts out on the high plains! Our gratitude to the musicians of Amarillo Virtuosi, Maestro Michael Palmer, Guglielmo Manfredi and Diego Caetano. A huge “Thank You!” to CMA’s artistic director David Palmer who orchestrated the extreme logistics.

With such incredible opportunities as Concerto Extraordinaire, and the prospect of more to follow in 2020, we proudly say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

January 15, 2019: AMOA Open

Sideshow Sally
Ralph Duke

The fifteenth annual AMOA Open welcomed artists and visitors for one week from Jan. 4 – 12. The exhibition, underwritten by Toot-n-Totem, and open to all Amarillo visual artists of any age and talent level, drew over 125 entries. In this eclectic event, grade schoolers displayed their creativity alongside seasoned professionals.

A small sampling of the works is noted here, with apologies to artist Terry Martin and photographer Sheldon Brashears whose images did not transfer.

Photographer Ralph Duke definitely drew the attention of most attendees with Sideshow Sally, noted above and a really fetching piece.

“Almost 3”
Jamie Mansfield

Jamie Mansfield’s Amost 3 is a perfect portrayal of sweet innocence, reminding one of the Impressionist paintings of Mary Cassatt.

“Idalou Angel”
Stacy Esquibel

In Idalou Angel, Stacy Esquibel creates a compelling work, asserting that on the bald Texas plains with their eternal, empty vistas, even monuments to the timeless become marred by time.

“A Healing Embrace”
George Loomis IV

Using only pencil and charcoal, the “sketchiest”‘ of media, George Loomis IV, in A Healing Embrace, has masterfully executed a rendering of protective paternal love.

“The Limited”
Melinda Anderson

In a fascinating water color reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Melissa Anderson, in The Limited, manages a trompe l’oeil that is complex and arresting.

“The Razor’s Edge”
Ian Watson

Ian Watson classifies his art as “color field,” much akin to the work of Mark Rothko. The artist revealed that, for this work, he listened to Pavarotti as he executed the variegations of red, while Beethoven’s 9th helped inspire the other hues. The viewer, to appreciate Watson’s sophisticated technique, must get up close and personal to evaluate the intricate chromatic melds and transformations.

The real star of the show was the Amarillo Museum of Art, which again demonstrated its community-centered focus, shining a light on the wealth of local talent. Amarillo can be grateful to the AMOA, because it makes it easy to say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”