REVIEW: Masterful Voices Sing of Night, Love, and Joy
MARCH 2, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Mastervoices, a 100-plus member chorus (originally founded by Robert Shaw in 1941), gave a concert on Friday night in Alice Tully Hall that seemed tailored to provide respite and consolation following what can only be described as an exasperating week in the "real world."
The chorus's Artistic Director, multi-talented Ted Sperling, led a program called “Night Songs and Love Waltzes” centering around the theme of Hausmusik, a genre of music-making in the 1800's that happened around the piano at home. In warm opening remarks, Sperling explained that tonight's music celebrated "homemade, handmade music," in contrast to an era in which so much is delivered directly to our EarPods and iPhones. Sperling summed up the evening's positive intentions, "we all need more harmony."
Opening with a delightful arrangement of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" from the musical of the same name by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, the forces assembled for this occasion were unique. Peter Sachon and Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf played cello beautifully in a handful of numbers, and a horn quartet, Zohar Schondorf, Steven Sherts, Kyle Hoyt, and Shelagh Abate, played as one, the combination of horns and celli was rich. Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich sang the arrangement's solo with welcoming aplomb.
Highlighting the usual emphasis on romance in Hausmusik, Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzes were the focus of the concert's first half. Mr. Sperling conducted with a keen eye on the larger structure, while at the same time giving the performers space, allowing the music to breathe and resonate. The wonderful quartet of singers: Ms. Aldrich, mezzo-soprano, Nicole Cabell, soprano, Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Nmon Ford, bass-baritone, all seemed to be on the same page, the uplifting, joyous spirit of Brahms's love music filling the room.
But the finds of the night were undoubtedly the piano duo Anderson and Roe. This spectacular pair exudes the very spirit of the whole evening's theme. Collaboration in the flesh. Sharing winks and smiles and, I imagine, having fun taking the other by surprise, Anderson and Roe play with deceptive ease and detailed refinement, as well as dazzling energy. They lended understated support to the Brahms Waltzes, but played two pieces on their own, first the Virtuoso Hungarian Dance No. 5 of Brahms, and later a truly stunning Libertango by Piazolla (both in the duo's own arrangements) that stopped the show.
The horn quartet's primary purpose was to accompany the men's chorus in another of the evening's high points, a skilled rendition of Schumann's Jaglieder, a set of five hunting songs. The horns sounded terrific, perfect intonation and phrasing, but also infused with the essence of the outdoors.
Mr. Ford sang a powerful rendition of a Brahms Lied, "Unbewegte Laue Luft," and Ms. Aldrich was joined by the women's chorus for Schubert's "Ständchen," a particularly beautiful melody, even for this master melodist, and a delightful back and forth between soloist and the women. After intermission, Mr. Phan sang Schumann's "Mondnacht" with magical lyricism.
The second half of the program began with an ambitious arrangement by Mr. Sperling of Night Waltzes from Sondheim's A Little Night Music. This was an inspired choice in this context, and notably, there was a passage included from material cut from the show and apparently not heard since -- I hope I get to hear this bittersweet music again. The soloists seemed to genuinely enjoy the change of musical pace, and the delicious witticisms in Sondheim's wry lyrics. The arrangement was so successful, I am convinced celli, horns, and piano duo would make a perfect orchestral complement for a production of Night Music.
The cello duo were featured in Mendelssohn's Verleih und Frieden, which speaks to Bach's strong influence on the composer, almost like an entry in a Bach Passion, with a duet for viola de gambas, and a religious chorus. Mr. Sachon and Ms. Dorman-Phaneuf played with heartfelt tenderness.
Following the piano duo's stunning Libertango, the composer Rick Ian Gordon's cycle Life is Love, a set of songs to the poetry of Langston Hughes, received a full-throated and purposeful premiere. The composer in attendance, the forces onstage gave this life-affirming set of songs a splendid performance.
Gordon's musical language was the perfect closer to the concert: contemporary, yet embodying a counterpoint to the jaded digital age in which we find ourselves. Summed up perfectly in Hughes's words for the last song of the evening, "Joy:" "I went to look for Joy, / Slim, dancing joy,/ Gay, laughing joy." It was a joyous evening, both because of the sheer number of performers onstage using their voices to lift all of us up, and through careful, thoughtful programming, and creative ingenuity.
Mastervoices’s next performance is:
Kurt Weill’s rarely heard musical,