Early Birds 

Getting there first

Getting there first

It’s summertime, and, if the livin’ ain’t easy, at least it’s more laid back. Not only do the “dog days” mean a dearth of live concerts, I sometimes feel disinclined even to press the track advance button on the CD remote control. That’s why discs by the Palladian Ensemble have made so much sense in the last few days—they’re such solid recordings that the remote is largely unnecessary.

You do remember the Palladian Ensemble, don’t you? They’re the hot new early music ensemble that played to a pitiable crowd last fall at David Lipscomb. At that point, Honest Entertainment, a Music Row organization best known for its Celtic music offerings, had picked up distribution rights to their recordings on the Linn Records label, and the Palladian folks were making a tour of the States promoting their album An Excess of Pleasure.

The London-based ensemble will be returning to this country for concerts at several early music venues beginning in the fall, and Honest/Linn has released A Choice Collection, Music of Purcell’s London to coincide with the tour. In addition two more Palladian releases—an album of Bach’s trio sonatas for organ and a collection of 17th-century Venetian music titled The Winged Lion—have found their way to local record bins, and each of them deserves consideration.

Not since the Collegium Terpsichore’s album of renaissance dance music by Praetorious have I heard an ensemble that has so much fun with music from this period. The Palladian performances are marked by a freedom and downright good cheer that will, no doubt, make them anathema to a lot of original-instruments mavens. If enjoyment of late renaissance and early baroque music has seemed a Misson Impossible, just toss these recordings—in your best Jim Phelps manner—on the nearest coffee table and start picking. Look for the name Nicola Mateis on any of these recordings, and you will always be rewarded. This Italian-born composer did much of his composing in England, and his rediscovery by the Palladian Ensemble is reason enough to praise the group.

Other surefire hits are the suites of dances and songs compiled by the Palladian folks, suites that make the listener really want to dance and sing. Particular favorites in this vein are the “Variations on Callino Casturame” by Henry Butler and a delightful rendition of “Old Simon the King” from A Choice Collection. Not to be missed are those moments when William Carter picks up his baroque guitar to serenade the listener with some of the most intimate, caressing music on the albums. I continue to return to Carter’s performance of the anonymous “Chiaconna” on An Excess of Pleasure, but his performance of “El Amor” by Santiago de Murcia is so sexy that it’s hard to choose between the two.

The more serious items on these four recordings aren’t to be dismissed either. The Bach trio sonata album gives the listener a very different sound portrait of these pieces, and the Vivaldi concerti on The Winged Lion gain in clarity due to the elegance of the performance. Even the two broken consorts by Matthew Locke—music that is not to my personal taste—gain much by intensely intimate performances.

On the technical side, the producers at Linn have done right by this group. The sound focus is utterly natural—the listener is neither wood-to-eyeball with the sound holes of the viol nor is he stuck behind a pillar in the back of the hall. The always intelligent program booklet annotations are an added bonus; the Linn writers are thorough, non-pedantic, and always able to find the right context for the music.

I might add here that Honest has committed to U.S. distribution of several items in the Linn catalogue: some recordings by highly esteemed lutenist Nigel North, an OK but very generic “hits of the baroque” concept album, and—a real sleeper here—the soon-to-be-released album of a cappella renaissance polyphony by Magnificat. This last has been very popular “trans-pond” and with local listeners.

Piping Up

An overwhelming need for estivation has not precluded all concert-going during August. As is appropriate for a month that leads all others in the number of family reunions, there have been a couple of recent opportunities for Nashville’s musical family to gather ’round. East End United Methodist Church inaugurated a concert series a couple of Sunday afternoons past, inviting organists from several area churches to perform hymn-tune settings. The congregation is featuring its 1913 Hillgreen/Lane instrument at these recitals in hopes of funding a restoration and renovation project, and the efforts of the nine participating organists—along with trumpeter Keith Ellis from the Belmont University School of Music—put the organ through its paces.

The choice of hymn tune settings was very apt for an instrument intended above all to accompany congregational singing. Ronald Baltimore’s performance of a work that included the congregation singing “Be Thou My Vision” and Betty Johnson’s performance of a setting of “Holy Manna” both demonstrated the instrument’s core voicing and its compatibility with a congregation that wants to sing. The particular beauty of the organ’s willowy flute stops and its pleasing and meditative strings are its two strong points, and both of these characteristics came to the fore in a fantasia on “Nettleton” (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”) played by Melvin Potts.

Problem areas for this instrument are mixtures that have a wolfish quality not unlike a carousel organ and a lack of extra power for those moments when some oomph is needed to get a musical point across. Alice Jordan’s setting of “Hymn to Joy,” played by Lisa Vincent, revealed this last problem most consistently. The piece is based on the alternation of fanfares with elements of the Beethoven tune, and, although Vincent tried her best, this instrument does not have a fanfare in it.

East End United Methodist’s organ also doesn’t have much of a pedal section, and it seems to lack a means to preset stops. Performances that would have otherwise flowed smoothly were made choppy by the need of the performers’ hands to leave the keyboard long enough to clear previous voices and to press the tabs for reregistration. Only Vincent had a helper for this, and her performance had the best flow of the afternoon. There will be other concerts in this series—the next one featuring baroque music—and the congregation is also inviting the community at large to participate in raising the funds for this instrument’s renewal. For more information on the concerts or the restoration, call 227-3272.

Nashville’s musical family is also being enriched by the various children’s choruses of the Blair School of Music. Pamela Schneller and David Bone led their choristers in a post-music-camp performance at the Scarritt-Bennett Center. It is very obvious that these kids have been working on their ability to sing together and on pitch. While much of the music on the program was largely unison singing, it was well done. Intonation was good, as was enunciation. These kids stuck to their leaders like glue, a trait that made for generally secure entrances and cutoffs.

Particular favorites were a Melchior Frank setting of “Da Pacem Domine,” Doreen Rao’s arrangement of “Siyahamba,” and the utterly charming “The Cuckoo, the Nightingale, and the Donkey” by Gustav Mahler. I also thought that the innocence of the children’s voices made for two exceptional “river” pieces, “Afton Water” and Aaron Copland’s setting of “Shall We Gather By the River.” The Copland was also notable for the richness of the ensemble’s altos. The pieces that worked less well, Persichetti’s “sam was a man” and “The Shenandoah Blues,” were the ones that needed an artificial heartiness to work—by and large, they didn’t. In none of the pieces did I hear the shrillness and hootiness that frequently plagues children’s vocal ensembles, but the bell-like quality that characterizes the best children’s singing has yet to be achieved by the Blair children’s choruses.

This program was the opener for the fall and winter offerings at Scarritt-Bennett. The next concert in the series, on Oct. 6, features a return by the Christ Church Cathedral Schola Cantorum. For more information on events at Scarritt-Bennett Center, phone 340-7500.

Finally, in closing, look to next week’s issue for an in-depth look at the upcoming (and very impressive) classical season at the Ryman Auditorium and for a report on the recent marriage of Nashville’s two opera companies, Tennessee Opera Theatre and The Nashville Opera.

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