Religious Experiences 

Two local churches—one holy, one secular—offer highly promising concerts this weekend

Two local churches—one holy, one secular—offer highly promising concerts this weekend

Lately a lot of good things have been happening in our city’s classical music corner—too many to pay proper attention to. That will continue this weekend when the Symphony plays another of its Sunday-matinee Horizons Concerts, and when the celebrated chamber ensemble from the Spoleto Festival USA performs at the Ryman. But some of the good things come and go without making any stir. We’re fortunate to have such quality and variety in our city, but it’s a pity such performers are not more widely heard.

Wonderful stuff happens, and mostly goes unnoticed, at many of the city’s churches, which often serve as venues for musical performances, some altogether secular. Hillsboro Presbyterian, West End Methodist, Christ Presbyterian in Brentwood, and St. George’s Episcopal Church have all offered outstanding programming. Last weekend Christ the King Catholic Church was the venue for a performance, sponsored by the American Guild of Organists, by the Scola Cantorum of Christ Church Cathedral.

This 11-voice ensemble, selected and directed by the Cathedral’s organist/choirmaster Michael Velting, sang music reaching from a composer born in 1579 to a composer born in 1961. In a performance elegant and distinguished throughout, the most exquisite moments came from a set of three contemporary pieces marked by graceful arioso lines and translucent, precisely tuned dissonances. Such performances don’t come often, even from acclaimed ensembles. They are pearls of great price when they do.

Christ Church Cathedral is itself regularly a venue for fine musical performance. It will be one again this Sunday afternoon, when the Chapel Choir from the University of the South sings an Anglican service of Choral Evensong. These well-disciplined, well-traveled, and accomplished singers are directed by organist/choirmaster Robert Delcamp. The service interweaves organ music and choral music reaching from the 16th to the 20th centuries into a contemplative liturgical drama about human beings wishing not to be overwhelmed in a perilous world.

All these churches are fine venues because they bring audiences and performers close together in accurately responsive musical spaces. In such spaces, music seems played for, instead of at, a listener—and the musical texture becomes an essential element of the experience. Such venues also magnify every flaw, and so can aggravate performance anxiety. All these characteristics are just as true of the Ryman Auditorium—which began its colorful history as a church. The Ryman remains one of the most essential—and merciless—acoustical spaces in our city. This Friday the venue will host one of the country’s finest chamber ensembles, led by one of the country’s ablest artistic directors.

Charles Wadsworth, a lifelong devotee of chamber music, first drew international attention in 1960, when he created a midday chamber music series in Spoleto, Italy. In 1969 he founded the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and led it for 20 years. In 1977 he established the Spoleto/USA Chamber Music Series in Charleston, S.C., and has appeared with it as pianist and host ever since. In 1997 he received the Chamber Music America Award, the premier award for contributions to chamber music in this country.

On this tour, Wadsworth has selected to perform with him a small group of virtuoso musicians—violinist Chee-Yun, cellist Andres Diaz, clarinetist Todd Palmer, and second pianist Stephen Prutsman, all of whom are prize-winning, widely experienced performers. Wadsworth’s informal stage presence is likewise well-suited to the ambiance of the Ryman. His combination of amiable charm and outstanding musicianship has made him a favorite of chamber music lovers all over the world.

The announced program offers an insightful and tasteful variety of musical idioms and textures. It ranges from the lyrically nostalgic ”Souvenirs for Piano, Four Hands“ of Samuel Barber (d. 1981), through the rich contralto sonorities of the Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano in A Minor by Johannes Brahms (d. 1897), to the sardonic witty brilliance of ”L’Histoire du Soldat“ by Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971) and the more somber sonorities of the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (d. 1884). Such a program, in such a venue, should demonstrate the range, variety, and power of music woven of so few and such fine elements.

It is gratifying that these celebrated players are coming to our city, and that our city has a venue like the Ryman for them to play in. But it is also worthwhile to recognize that our city has other good venues, scarcely recognized as such, and that in those venues unforgettably fine music is made by musicians mostly unknown. We should listen up, for we’re wealthier than we realize.

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