A Holiday Sweet 

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

I miss my Aunt Dorothea; every holiday brings back remembrances of her. Of course, when Christmas rolls around, I always remember my Uncle Newt and Aunt Elizabeth too. Tight as the bark on a tree, Uncle Newt could always be counted on to furnish a cheap, self-improving gift—flattened pennies impressed with microscopic Bible verses were a favorite. My Aunt Elizabeth gave socks, colorfully wrapped and beribboned with yards of that corrugated stuff that tightens into masses of curls at the touch of a knife blade. But my Aunt Dorothea was special. She went in for both the unusual and the very personal: crossword puzzles in French, my first microscope, and, after her retirement when times were lean, the unvarying box of cherry cordials that both she and I agreed were the best in the world. I thought of Dorothea Adams at last Saturday’s premiere concert in the Nashville Chamber Orchestra’s 1996-97 season. Their holiday gift of Vivaldi, Elgar, Kodaly, and a first hearing of Conni Ellisor’s Blackberry Winter was as personal and as welcome as that Yuletide box of cherries.

:I must admit that Aunt Dorothea flashed through my mind as John Johns performed the Vivaldi D Major guitar concerto with the NCO. People who aren’t able to tell The Four Seasons from Orlando Furioso have encountered this music as background to commercials touting Betty Crocker cake mixes—Aunt D’s standard brand. I am happy to report that Johns’ solo work was just as sweet as my memories of chocolate cake at my aunt’s kitchen table. The playing was splendidly florid, with exceptional nuance of phrase and dynamic. Johns was troubled by some tricky fast passages in the first movement, and the ensemble had some pitch problems in the final movement, but the grace of it all—particularly the poetic middle movement—made small flaws insignificant.

The first rarity of the evening came with a performance of the “Adagio for Cello and Strings” by Zoltan Kodaly. I am a big Kodaly fan. I realize that his friend and compatriot Bela Bartok is the more significant composer, but over the years I have found more pleasure in Kodaly’s more conservative idiom and colorful instrumentation. This little elegy, written early in his career and before he had fully found his mature voice, has lovely reminiscences of Mahler, Rimsky, Borodin, early Schoenberg, and even a hint of Puccini, but in the moments of greatest emotion Kodaly’s feel for Hungarian sorrow comes popping out. The ensemble work had a marked sweetness here, the violins in particular managing to bring off a smooth but dark sound that had the body and sweetness of fine old honey. But at moments of greatest intensity, the sound thinned and sometimes acquired a squally sound.

The NCO’s first-chair cellist, David Hancock, was the soloist, and he generally did well by the piece’s difficulties. His playing in the cello’s high register—always problematic when it comes to pitch—was, in the main, accurate. The performance also had a fine sense of breath, but I think that Hancock’s use of vibrato to sweeten his tone was too constant and too rapid for that ne plus ultra in desolation. In his remarks prior to the performance, director Paul Gambill called this piece a scarcely discovered treasure, and I agree. After working on these few problems, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra should include “Adagio for Cello and Strings” on its upcoming recording.

It was also clear from his remarks that Gambill has great personal feeling for Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro; it certainly showed in the way the ensemble approached the piece. This was an unusually fast-paced performance, Gambill taking particular pains to emphasize the impetuosity of introductory and transitional passages. He called for, and generally got from the ensemble, an almost choral approach to dynamics, and the wistful moments in the work were done very well.

The performance as a whole, however, had more technical problems than any other I’ve encountered at NCO concerts. The violins, especially the first violinist, kept missing entrances by just a shade. Pitch problems abounded, especially in the accord between the cellos and violas—whenever they played together, there were some notably ungracious sounds. The big fugue found the whole ensemble so out of tune that it sounded blue, and Gambill’s tempi choices were frequently too fast for the players, causing much of the already fast passagework to unravel into a rushed slurry of notes.

If concertgoers approached the NCO’s performance of Blackberry Winter expecting the standard display concerto, I fear that they were disappointed. The evanescent sound of the featured instrument, the dulcimer, did not allow it to do more than color the sound of tutti passages, and the prominence of its drone pushed its melodic capabilities into the background. Even amplified, it seemed more retiring than a glass harmonica. Although the middle movement featured the larger and louder member of the dulcimer family, the Tennessee Music Box, the instrument’s charms could be fully heard only in the solo passages.

Having issued these caveats, let me say that composer, ensemble, and soloist did a remarkable job of working around the solo instrument’s weaknesses; in fact, they highlighted its virtues with astounding clarity. In the first movement, the dulcimer’s principal task—although it may not have been what the composer intended—was to give a kind of color to the ensemble as a whole. The instrument functioned more like a harpsichord continuo than as a brilliant soloist in these tutti passages, but when Ellisor wanted the dulcimer to say something in an ensemble context, she wisely wrote for the dulcimer and lower strings. This combination gave the solo part a great depth without covering the soloist’s melodic material.

The finale, especial the Copland-esque transition to the final passages, was particularly rich, with a duet between the soloist and concertmaster standing out as a particularly ravishing piece of writing. Elsewhere, Ellisor brought out the dulcimer’s hypnotic qualities in passages that might have been written for sitar. The crown of the piece was the elegant slow movement, a fantasia on the old sacred harp hymn “I will arise and go to Jesus.” Again, the drone in the soloist’s sound was prominent, but with this tune it became a strength exploited by both composer and soloist.

Stephen Seifert was brilliant as soloist; he sat in place of his teacher, David Schnaufer, whose last-minute medical emergency prevented his performance. As much as the instruments in question could allow, Seifert played with a flexibility of phrase and dynamic. Indeed, he transcended the dulcimer’s limitations. His performance of the middle movement was riveting, and he was a lively colorist in the finale. The NCO also did their best work of the night here: lots of tricky passages navigated with barely a hitch, good dynamics, and a particularly fine approach to phrase in the second movement.

The Nashville Chamber Orchestra is slated to record this work for Warner Bros., along with Ellisor’s previous NCO commission. When the disc comes out, hack your way through the crowds and buy it.

One other memory of the evening reminded me of my Aunt Dorothea. In the second part of the program, along with some arrangements for dulcimer and strings, John Johns returned to perform with Stephen Siefert an arrangement of the old Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It brought tears to my eyes as I remembered that I first heard this song when my aunt taught it to me. All of us in the audience last Saturday eagerly await some future Christmas, when this performance, along with other equally fine arrangements for guitar and dulcimer, will have been released. I look forward to it, along with a beautifully wrapped box of Cella’s dark chocolate cherry cordials.

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