If ever a concert series deserved to be saved, it’s Concertmaster and Friends.
The four chamber music concerts headed by Alabama Symphony’s violinist-in-chief Daniel Szasz was nearly canceled last season because of a lack of funding. Generous contributors, volunteers and a fundraiser that auctioned off some eye-catching painted violins, rescued it.
One of the series’ endearing qualities is that it is never business as usual, and the 2012-13 opening concert Tuesday night fell right in line. Joining Szasz at Brock Recital Hall was Sursum Corda, the 18-voice, Birmingham-based choir headed by Lester Seigel, in a program that focused on the uncommon combination of violin and chorus.
Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs” was the centerpiece, and the standout work. “Temuna” and “Kala Kalla” alternated between gentle reflection and festive spurts. In “Eyze Sheleg!” murumuring low voices set an atmospheric backdrop to Szasz’s expressive solo. Pianist Ken Watson was the able accompanist.
Composer Phillip Rhodes was in the audience to hear his “Three Appalachian Settings,” which had Szasz sounding more like a bluegrass fiddler than a virtuoso violinist. “Pretty Saro” was a particularly lovely setting of a folk tune that migrated from England, Rhodes’ thick-textured choral writing a heartfelt counterpoint to Szasz’s soaring violin lines.
Emerging from the chorus, baritone Daniel Seigel sang with clarity and lightness in four Vaughan Williams songs for violin and voice, the two Daniels forming a conversational dialogue that ranged from wistful to powerful. Szasz and Lester Seigel partnered in a breezy Gershwin set arranged by Rhodes that brought out the nostalgia and timelessness of “Summertime,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Fascinating Rhythm.”
Sursum Corda blended comfortably with Szasz, honing a distinct blend and well-defined transparency among sections. Although some ensemble inconsistencies surfaced in a Louis Spohr song and Rhodes’ Appalachian settings, the choir sang with passion and purity, especially in the swooning harmonies of “O, Kum Shoyn Shtiler Ovnt.” It next appears at an ASO event in November, with Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneus.” Concertmaster and Friends continues Oct. 9 with “Contemporary Visions.”
Written By: Michael Huebner for AL.com (Alabama Media Group, The Birmingham News), published September 10, 2012.