March 5, 2022: FASO Organ Concert: St. Andrews Episcopal

Clive Driskill-Smith Organ Recital

What is one to do on Super Bowl Sunday if they are indifferent to the teams as well as to the Hip-Hop halftime extravaganza? If they lived in Amarillo, Texas, they attended a world-class organ recital on the world-famous Aeolian-Skinner organ at St. Andrews Episcopal Church..

For the first time in two years, FASO (Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 124), held a public concert. The organist was Clive Dirskell-Smith, one of the most renown young organists on the planet. Educated at Oxford and organist at Christ Church, Oxford from 2001-2018, he is currently organist and choirmaster at All Saints Episcopal in Ft. Worth.

His varied program actualized the capacity of this amazing instrument. Two of his pieces are noted here.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) had a case of insomnia one night courtesy of a Zeppelin raid, which inspired his Rhapsody in C# Minor. This piece narrates every people under air attack, who endure, persevere, and ultimately claim victory.

The unmistakable low registers prevail in the tumultuous opening, calling to mind the engines of the airships and the explosions of their ordnance.

At approximately 2:45 the music turns eerily soft, perhaps the quiet after battle or the stillness of death.

At 4:30 the piece starts to build assertively, noting that the winds of war are blowing in the opposite direction. Then, at a certain point, the swell tempers, a caution against overconfidence.

But, at 7:30, the volume again starts to build with the piece ending in triumphant crescendo, the composer confident of victory even in the darkest days of WWI.

Howells’ work commands a powerful relevance in the present distress. As the sirens sound in Kyiv and Kharkiv, the brave and defiant Ukrainians know that their endurance will ensure that they will ultimately hear, as Howells’ work promises, the rhapsody of victory.

Georg Frederick Handel first performed his Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 3 No. 5 in 1735 after he and his company relocated to Covent Garden. The father of the concerto, these pieces were composed partly for the purpose of luring audiences away from the rival venue. So, even the lofty ideals of artistic creation can serve a pragmatic impulse.

Driskill-Smith went full Handel on the Aeolian Skinner, the contrasts in the piece again showcasing the versatility of the instrument.

The opening Larghetto is slow and deliberate, while the Allegro, by contrast bounces with a recurrent theme. The Alla Siciliana is somber, almost morose, while the Presto is bright and alive.

The piece is a real roller coaster brought to its actualized fruition by the magnificence of the Opus 124.

On a personal note, Clive and I reminisced about a Christ Church cleric that I knew when I went to New College and that he worked with. Small world this.

There was a wine and cheese reception in the Fellowship Hall following the concert where all celebrated the world-class artistry, a not uncommon experience here on the High Plains, that we had just heard.

Clive Driskell-Smith Toasts Keeping Amarillo Artsy!

For this phenomenon we, along with Clive, proudly raise our glasses as we toast Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

02/22/22 – “As You Like It:” WTAMU Theatre

Curtain Call: As You Like It – WTAMU Theatre Dept

February 9 – 13 the WTAMU Dept of Theatre and Dance staged the Shakespearean classic As You Like It in the Happy State Bank Studio Theatre. Think a comedy/romance with a Game of Thrones vibe, sans dragons of course, where true love wins out and bad is banished. Such a happy ending is as we all would like it, whether now or in the early seventeenth century.

The play, though written over four hundred years ago, has, with its questioning of gender roles and behaviors, a particular modern resonance and relevance. In the context of the quest for true love and the desire for power, constants in human nature, the play explores the fallacies of perception that can lead all of us down uncharted paths, whether into the fantasy glade of Arden and/or new possibilities for actualization.

A key to the perennial endurance of the bard’s work, besides the universal themes and issues, is its adaptability to time and space: witness Romeo and Juliet in 20th century L.A. or A Midsummer’s Night Dream in a 19th century Tuscan town with characters on bicycles. So what were the creative twists in this production that made it stand out as different?

Though the dialogue is set in stone, directors permit themselves wide latitude regarding musical interludes, whether vocal or instrumental, trying either to approximate the original or insert new compositions.

In the case of As You Like It, which is recognized as the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, Director Echo Sunyata Sibley’s creative team went over the top, and their compositions stood out as high points in the production. Three examples are noted.

Zachary Todd composed four works for this production, with arrangements by the director and Raffaele Abbate. At one point, the hero Orlando sings in the manner of Elvis, eliciting audience laughs where there would usually be silence.

The hunting song, a stomp the yard chant performed by the entire cast, was almost a tribal in effect and created by the members circling and then doing a version of “We Will Rock You” as they responded to prompts thrown out by the director. Collaborative creativity at its finest.

Hymen’s Prayer, sung by the cast at the wedding was richly liturgical, almost Palestrina-like in its harmony. One would think they were hearing the University Chorale.

Sunyata-Sibley added a comic warm-up, a stock character from the Comedia Dell’Arte trope who represents Zanni, a foreigner in a strange land, interacting with other outsiders, the audience, new to the forest. Bella Walker’s improv antics held the attention of those seating for both the first and second acts, with a syllabic spew worthy of a Tolkien tongue.

The magic element of a forest nymph was expanded by the director into three characters, who both sang and danced, with terpsichorean moves worthy of the Mariinsky.

The characters delivered their lines with clarity and an adroit sense of timing, devoid of caricatured British accents. And the stage, had an aesthetic utility in its construction, serving equally as a palais royale and a sylvan hideout.

To see Shakespeare performed with such creativity did credit to the bard and was a privilege to see. But, incredible as it seems, enjoying quality theatre along with all the other fine arts is a regular feature of life here in Cowboy Country. That is As We Like It up here on the high plains.

Anticipating future performances that enhance our quality of life, we say: “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

February 19, 2022: Koussevitsky comes to the Comancheria

Nicholas Scales Recital on the Koussevitsky Bass February 6, 2022: Fine Arts Recital Hall, WTAMU

Say the title fast, three times. It sounds like a tongue twister developed by speech therapists to war against the slow-talking Panhandle palate.

Yet it refers to a real event when Dr. Nick Scales, principal bassist for the Amarillo Symphony and music faculty member at WTAMU secured the incomparable double bass owned by the legendary Serge Koussevitsky and treated a lucky audience to a memorable Sunday afternoon recital, February 6 in WTAMU’s Fine Arts Complex Recital Hall.

Serge Koussevitsky was the iconic conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 -1948. He was also a composer, and a musician specializing in the double bass.

His instrument’s creation was long attributed to the Amati family of Cremona. Later research pegged construction as French, dating around the mid-eighteenth century, qualifying it as vintage, by any standard.

After his death, Koussevitsky’s widow gifted the upright to Gary Karr, the preeminent American bassist. In 2005, Karr donated it to the International Bassist Society, which has subsequently loaned the bass viol to artists all over the planet. Sunday marked Nick’s time to bow and fret this magnificent example of the luthier’s art to the delight of some forty privileged attendees.

Maestro Scales, like Maestro Koussevitsky, is determined that the double bass deserves acclaim as a solo instrument, not an orchestral back bencher. His crusade was abetted by the rich sonorities and luscious, complex overtones unlocked by his bow.

Accompanied by Mila Abbasova on the piano, his program intentionally showcased the upright’s immense range and capacity. Two of the works, long considered staples of the bass repertoire, are noted.

Koussevitsky, as mentioned, was also a composer, and his short piece Valse Miniature featured his artistic specialty. The majority of this work involves intricate yet lyrical multi-octave runs on the strings while the piano plays a rhythmic 3/4. Towards the end the parts become somewhat contrapuntal, the bass mirroring the keyboard.

It’s as if both men dared the audience: “just listen to this!” We did, and came away convinced.

A second number on the program worth noting was Concerto No. 2 by Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a composer of the Romantic Era, who was also the first to advance the overhand bow grip for bassists. And, like Koussevitsky, his agenda was to promote the versatility of an instrument long relegated to the non-melodic end of the scale.

The Allegro Moderato involves sequences of runs covering the octaval range, some with some quite intense sawing. The Andante, by contrast, is passionate and lyrical, while the Allegro opens with a pulsing gallop that carries the listener from buzzing lows to squeaky highs.

If Romanticism focuses on the emotions, then Bottesini obviously wanted to startle the listener by the potential of this instrument. By this measure, both the composer and the artist succeeded.

What a honor, in this unlikely place, to hear this incomparable instrument played by obviously a world-class artist!

The fact that artistic offerings of such uncommon quality are not uncommon events here on the Comancheria affirms our commitment to Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

Feb. 11, 202: “Cabaret” at ALT

Audience Exiting Cabaret: Feb 5, 2022

“Show don’t tell!” The mantra of authors of every genre is currently on full display at Amarillo Little Theatre Adventure Space. In the space of two hours and through the magic of the stage, the cast and crew of Cabaret have done what hundreds of eminent historians in thousands of tomes have attempted: show how Germany morphed from a democracy to a fascist autocracy is less than a decade, although the actual focus of the play is Berlin, c. 1929-1930.

Reprised from one of the initial shows at the Adventure Space nearly two decades ago, all associated ALT personnel demonstrated that the impact of the musical has increased exponentially during that interim, as testified by the exit of a mute and sobered audience.

Two scenes, both floor shows at the Kit Kat Klub Caberet depict the story arc of the play. In both, the audience is welcomed by the emcee, the omniscient narrator and a paragon of louche depravity, played with Satanic relish by Jason Driver.

In the opening number, the Kit Kat girls and boys, scantily clad adverts for all forms of licentious exploration, romp around, encapsulating all of the moral anarchy associated with the politically impoverished Weimar Republic. Both sexes mime their specialties as the emcee explains. Mary Poppins, this ain’t! The cast members, true to their characters, performed their parts, from naughty to nasty, devoid of restraint or inhibition. Those who try to force this area into a mold of conservative rigidity obviously don’t know Amarillo’s stage scene, especially the Adventure Space.

In stark contrast, the second act’s final floor show scene, shows the bevy of beauties now Stahlhelm crowned and strutting in goosed and booted lockstep as they form a revolving swastika on stage. Die Neuordnung kommt! And, between these numbers, Everyman archetypes populate the limelight, illuminating this sordid transformation.

Sally Bowles, played by the incredibly talented Terry Martin, personifies willful ignorance of the worsening situation. Playing whatever part is necessary for Sally to get what Sally wants, she drops her facade in a moment of introspection, questioning whether she’s good enough to be a wife and mother. But, she gets over it, deciding to keep dancin’ with who brung her. Unhappiness is probably the least of the fates the future holds for Sally.

Dillon Kizarr plays the outsider, the ambigendered American writer Clifford Bradshaw who sees with clarity what is taking place in Germany. His attempts to enlighten fall on deaf ears, even as he takes amorous detours with Bobby, and does smuggling on the side for Ernst Ludwig, the Nazi party hack. Cliff is, like so many of us, a contradiction. But, he does recognize evil, stands up to it and pays the price. To Sally, shocked at his battered visage, he stoically remarks, “Well you ought to see the other three guys’ faces. Not a mark on them.”

Jo Smith and Jacob Miller are both convincing in their roles of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Fraulein Schneider calls herself a survivor, forsaking true love and happiness with the Jewish Schultz, laying low in order to survive. How many hundreds of thousands of such survivors were immolated in the firestorm of Hamburg or obliterated in the leveling of Dresden or Nuremberg? Herr Schultz, on the other hand, is in denial that the Nazis will ever come to power, and that the increasing violence against Jews is nothing but schoolboy pranks.

The greatest character change is seen in Fraulein Kost, the in-house prostitute played by Amber Morgan, who literally becomes the voice of change. Her solo in “Married” is auf Deutsch, full of hope and shows her tender side. However, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which starts off as whimsical and light, centering on the new life of spring, becomes hard-edged and lethal, the cast forming a tightening circle around the two couples as Nazi flags unfurl from overhead. The effect was chilling. But it only got worse.

A sidebar on “Tomorrow,” composed by Fred Ebb and John Kander and used in the original stage production. The songwriters, both Jewish, conceived of the work as part of an anti-fascist cycle, but ironically, it has been adopted as an anthem by right-wing groups all over the western world.

Germans bought Hitler’s big lie, that Germany didn’t lose WWI, as well as his promise of MGGA. The consequence to any who didn’t conform, like Jews, or artists because they have the nasty habit of thinking for themselves, consumed the final scene, where all wore striped pajamas. The play abruptly closed with a crashing lights out and the characters vanished. A stunned audience didn’t applaud as the lights returned, and the dramatis personae made no curtain call.

Each in attendance exited lost in their own thoughts. This reaction alone attests to both the quality and effect of Cabaret.

The opening of the play so close to Holocaust Remembrance Day can’t be circumstantial and the brace of Caberet’s messages are more relevant than ever. The big lie, racism and antisemitism headline our news. The Jan. 6 insurrection, which the RNC so spinelessly called a “legitimate political discourse,” featured numerous 6MWE (six million weren’t enough) and “Camp Auschwitz” sweaters among the rioters.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Monuments from Yad Vashem to the Holocaust Museum are dedicated to that memory. And, Amarillo Little Theatre has joined its voice to that mission. No one seeing Cabaret will forget its message, either historical or in current threat.

We can be thankful for such edgy theatre, that dares speaks the truth to powerful prejudice, and does so with matchless artistry. For this, and all of the elevated art found in this unlikely place, we say with gratitude, Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

February 5, 2022: Amarillo Little Theatre – “Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express: Amarillo Little Theatre

The supreme cosmic force governing not only the stage but much of life, is timing. Remember Patrick Mahomes and the thirteen seconds? Faulty timing reduces the greatest talent to mediocrity and the most inspired stagecraft to bumbling ineptitude.

Amarillo LIttle Theatre’s recently-completed mainstage run of Murder on the Orient Express, pegged the timing down to the nano-second, and the ensuing collaboration of characters and staging produced a triumph!

The play embraces a favorite Shakespearean motif: the conflict between the apparent and the real. So, Murder becomes a play within a play with all but two of the characters portraying alternate personas to mask their true identities.

The Agatha Christie estate commissioned Ken Ludwig to craft a stage adaption of the iconic Whodunnit. The interpretation of the playwright along with the artistic vision of ALT’s directors, cast and crew did credit to the late legendary dame.

Though not listed in cast, one of the main players in this drama was the stage. Director Jason Crispin and his team did a deep dive into creative scene management that utilized multi-purpose modules which effected seamless changes in a matter of seconds.

And, to literally top it all off, a screen running atop the length of the stage, captured the passing landscape and changing weather conditions imparted a realistic view from the passengers’ perspectives

Each member of the cast effectively portrayed credible characters, not, in the words of an ALT employee, just caricatures. That quality was born out in the multinational melange of accents and dialects demanded by the script: try Hungarian; Swedish; French; Russian; Scottish; New York City; English; American. That the cast maintained variegated linguistic purity with nary a slip into Panhandle-Plains patois is a testimony to talent.

We note only three of this stellar dramatis personae: Carrie Huckaby; Brooks Boyett: Michael Newman. Carrie Huckaby gave a credible portrayal of the brash, self-seeking Helen Howard, whose true identity, agenda and ultimate volte face seeded the genesis of the plot.

Brooks Boyett, a really nice young man, could film his own Despicable Me from his cringe worthy portrayal of the child-abducting murderer Samuel Ratchett. Brook’s role inspired no tears of audience sympathy at his own well-earned demise.

Finally, Michael Newman was flawless as Hercule Poirot. His role incorporated not only the accent, noted above, but the subtle nuances of non-verbal expression endemic to the French character.

Kudos to cast and crew for delivering a stage production far above the pay grade of the ticket cost!

And quality theatre is just one of the reasons the arts in Amarillo astound and amaze.

Thus we offer the benediction: Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

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!!!!”