Celebrating Forty Years of the Da Capo Chamber Players

Mamlok , Fitch, Tower, Tsontakis, Schoenberg: Lucy Shelton (soprano), Jeremiah Campbell (cello), Da Capo Chamber Players, Merkin Concert Hall, 2.6.2011 (BH)

Ursula Mamlok : Die Laterne (1988)
Keith Fitch
: Midnight Rounds (2010, New York premiere)
Joan Tower
: And…They’re Off! (1997)
George Tsontakis
: Gravity (2011, World premiere)
Joan Tower
: Très lent (Hommage à Messiaen) (1994)
Arnold Schoenberg
: Pierrot Lunaire (1912)

Da Capo Chamber Players

Patricia Spencer, flute
Meighan Stoops, clarinet
Curtis Macomber, violin
André Emilianoff, cello
Blair McMillen, piano

Marking four decades of work including over 100 commissions, the Da Capo Chamber Players celebrated that milestone with a prototypical mix of new works and greatest hits, ending with an early 20th-century landmark that they do about as well as anyone, anywhere. Joan Tower, one of the group’s founders, was on hand for some funny, self-effacing remarks, before the players offered Ursula Mamlok’s Die Laterne, commissioned by UCLA’s Schoenberg Institute. Mamlok uses one of the texts (No. 44) by Albert Giraud not set by Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire, and although composed over 75 years later, it is as crisp and exacting as its inspiration, flooded with color. With the Da Capo players clearly needing no warm-up, soprano Lucy Shelton, widely acclaimed for her interpretation of Pierrot over the years, gave a reading that only whetted the appetite for the latter half of the program.

Keith Fitch, head of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, wrote Midnight Rounds for the ensemble when they appeared there in the fall of 2010. Among its technical demands: pianist Blair McMillen effortlessly navigated a piano part with his left hand while fingering a celesta with his right. With the superb Jeremiah Campbell as guest cellist, sparkling ensemble passages alternated with paragraphs of thundering violence, and the composer was on hand to acknowledge the appreciative response. Ms. Tower was represented by two strong works, starting with And…They’re Off! for violin, cello and piano, with violinist Curtis Macomber, Mr. Campbell and Mr. McMillen stirring up a small tornado. And later in the program, Da Capo’s veteran cellist André Emilianoff joined McMillen for the stirring Très lent (Hommage à Messiaen), a moody homage to the composer’s Quartet for the End of Time.

George Tsontakis lives in New York’s Catskill Mountains and is currently in residence with the Albany Symphony. He wrote his appealing Gravity as a tribute to Mr. Emilianoff, in three movements: “Moon’s Shadow” has echoes of Debussy, “Levity” is highly syncopated with some literal toe-tapping near the end, and “Light in Night’s Garden” revels in trills and glissandi before bits of the first section reappear. Tsontakis was also present for another warm audience response.

I first heard Ms. Shelton in Pierrot Lunaire back in 2005 on another Da Capo concert – a 90th birthday tribute to the late George Perle. At that time, she performed in front of a small Pierrot doll, but one mark of a great artist is the ability to do something completely different in subsequent interpretations. Here she settled into a large chair in the middle of the ensemble, getting comfortable as if she were someone’s kindly aunt, preparing to relate a beloved children’s story. As she sat down and looked at her colleagues, one might have been expecting The Story of Babar. But Giraud’s still-shocking verses are anything but what one might want to read before bedtime, stocked with blood and gruesome hallucinations.

The brilliance of Ms. Shelton is that she calls upon a huge array of vocal techniques: in one section, “The Sick Moon,” she emitted what could best be described as a hoarse croak. Other times were more playful, filled with rapid chatter or childlike tittering – but the child is smoking tobacco from a skull. Another moment she seemed hypnotized, with a beatific look – but she’s enraptured by a beheading. Coupled with the dazzlingly alert instrumental work from the five musicians – including Patricia Spencer on flute and Meighan Stoops on clarinet, both astounding – the result was a disturbing, claustrophobic voyage, with Ms. Shelton as the uncomfortably weird guide. The large audience, clearly moved, brought out the performers over and over for a loudly shouted, highly apropos ovation.

Bruce Hodges