An Enchanted Evening: An Utterly Delightful Flute and Piano Concert
– by Lee Greene
I am delighted to report that I enjoyed An Enchanted Evening on Sunday afternoon, July 17, 2016, at Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland. REALLY! No kidding! An Enchanted Evening was a flute and piano concert performed by the very talented principal flute player of the Rogue Valley Symphony, Katheryn McElrath, joined by the multi-talented Maestro of that Symphony, Martin Majkut, who also happens to be a first-rank piano player. To be fair, the Sunday performance I attended was the second of two; the first, on Saturday, July 16, WAS an evening concert. Semantics of timing aside, the use of the adjective Enchanted hits the nail on the head:
* * * *
- to delight or captivate utterly; fascinated; charmed”
British Dictionary definitions for enchant
I’m here to tell you that I was utterly delighted by the duo’s performances of 10 pieces followed by an encore. And I wasn’t the only one! The event was held in Grizzly Peak Winery’s cavernous tasting room, a large space with high vaulted ceilings. The place was packed for the Sunday afternoon performance, over 180 audience members seated on folding chairs from wall to wall. (Aside – a happy circumstance. Messr. Majkut, in comments to the audience, disclosed that in rehearsals, the large empty space produced a very noticeable and undesirable echo, so the artists hoped there would be enough audience bodies in the hall to absorb the sound and ameliorate the echo. He further commented that it was happily so, and the resulting sound, with a full audience present, was “perfect”.) And the large audience, clearly of the same mind as me, ALL loved the performance. Both at intermission and after the concert was over, there was a consistent, audible buzz from audience members declaiming what a wonderful concert it was, and how very much it was enjoyed. There was also consistent enthusiastic, practically raucous audience applause after each number, and such a sustained, energetic round of applause after the “concluding” tenth piece on the program, that the artists practically didn’t have a choice but to placate the audience by performing an encore – so they did. Now, on to some details.
For the concert, the tasting room was accessorized with a gorgeous Kawai grand piano with a polished rosewood-like finish. A nearby audience member, scratching their head, wondered aloud, “Where did THAT come from? Wineries don’t generally have grand pianos sitting around.” True. But Grizzly Peak Winery owners, Al and Virgina Silbowitz, who are music and culture lovers (and big supporters of Rogue Valley Symphony, which is the connection that led to the choice of concert venue), DID happen to have a wonderful Kawai grand piano in their home, purchased from Rogue Valley’s Steinway dealer and expert (obviously he doesn’t just deal in Steinways), Tom Lowell. Lowell was happily enlisted to temporarily move the piano from the Silbowitzs’ home to their winery and give it a good pre-concert tuning. In addition to the beautiful piano, the front of the room was adorned with an equally dazzling antique music stand. Another audience member, spotting that stand, exclaimed, “I MUST have an antique music stand like THAT. Not WANT. NEED! It’s beautiful!”
The proceedings began with Mr. Silbowitz welcoming the crowd, and saying a few words about the winery, the couple’s interest and dedication to music and cultural events, and the regular stream of scheduled events at the winery. (I can’t resist another aside – I saw an impressive theater performance in the same space, Red by Ashland Contemporary Theater in March). Then Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut entered. Katheryn McElrath was lovely in an attractive open shoulder Azure blue gown (I was driven to my color chart to get THAT detail right), with sequined accessories, a stunning silver necklace, a pair of compatible pendant earrings, and a silver bracelet on her left wrist – all the shiny stuff mirroring the beautiful shiny metal flute she was holding and about to play. Not to be sexist or discriminate, Mr Majkut was handsomely attired in a Nehru-style black tuxedo jacket, French collar white tuxedo shirt, sans tie, and grey dress slacks. They were joined up front by the seemingly ever-present and indispensable pianist, organist, and sometimes as this time, page turner, Jodi French, looking comely as always, with her flaming red hair, and wearing a charming black concert-worthy dress.
The duo began the concert by performing the Sonata in g minor, BWV 1020, written for harpsichord and violin (or flute/recorder) and commonly attributed to Johan Sebastian Bach. (That might be good enough for any other writer’s review, but I can’t overlook the fact that in more recent times, the piece has come to be attributed instead to Johan’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, as H 542.5; see Wikipedia, List of chamber music works by Johann Sebastian Bach, http://bit.ly/2a1VQDI, and references cited there.) Regardless of whether it was written by father or son, it is an impressive 3 movement piece of pleasing music, which presented an apt opening for this concert. The first movement, an Allegro, was quite lively and very effectively showed off the flute performance, which was well handled by Ms. McElrath. The second movement, an Adagio, was considerably slower and presented a much heavier contribution by the piano than the previous movement. Of course, Mr. Majkut was more than up to the task. The third movement, another Allegro, presented livelier contributions by both the flute and piano, and really began to showcase the skill of both players, and their superb teamwork, playing together as ensemble members, highly attuned to one another, tight, together, clearly “on the same sheet of music”. Ms. McElrath swayed gently as she played her flute, and Mr. Majkut maintained an erect posture, but cocked his head back and forth, almost as though coordinated with Ms. McElrath’s movements. At its conclusion, the audience responded with a well-earned effusive round of applause.
Then the artists paused to each offer a few words. Mr. Majkut commented upon the hall, as already noted above. Ms. McElrath had some interesting things to say about the next piece, a Mozart composition for the flute and piano, Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra, K. 315. She noted that Mozart is commonly considered to have hated the flute. [Mozart DID express some less than happy comments about the flute: research discloses at least two instances he is reported as stating that he “loathed the flute”. Whether he meant it literally, or tongue in cheek is a matter of much conjecture. See discussion at Amazon Customer Discussions > Classical Music Forum, Did he really hated the flute? (no pun intended), http://amzn.to/29GatOL] It’s understandable why Mozart might have had a few unpleasant things to say about the flute as “Baroque flutes were actually quite terrible. They were difficult to play, their intonation was horrible, and the tone was really hard to get to sound good. As a result there were pitifully few good flute players out there.” [Answers.com, Why did Mozart hate the flute?, http://bit.ly/29NSrWd] I’m betting he would have felt differently if he had the opportunity to enjoy Ms. McElrath and her flute. She pointed out that despite Mozart’s reputation for hating the flute, Mozart did compose some of the best flute music ever written. Ms. McElrath put it very well: “When you hear [Mozart’s Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra], instead of hearing hate, you’re going to hear love.” When the duo began to play Mozart’s Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra, it was just so.
Of course, when they did perform Mozart’s Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra, they lacked an orchestra, but instead presented an orchestra reduction for piano. As rendered by Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut, the piece was just undeniably beautiful: melodic, sweet and pleasant. Though the piano reduction was replacing an entire orchestra, the flute part was clearly far more beautiful and noteworthy. Ms. McElrath’s performance was just exquisite, especially near the end of the piece, with superb trills. Listening to that performance of Mozart’s Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra, the audience truly DID come to know that Mozart LOVED the flute.
Mr. Majkut then spoke about the next piece, a solo piano performance of Frederic Chopin’s Fantaisie – Impromptu, noting that the piece was not published during the composer’s lifetime, and conjecturing that the reason might be due to its similarity to an earlier piece by another composer, which has not similarly endured in the popular piano repertoire over time. (Why Chopin actually never published Fantaisie – Impromptu is unknown although it has recently been posited that the published work was an unfinished version of a commissioned work whose final version was later sold to Baroness d’Este in 1835; today the piece is “one of Chopin’s most frequently performed and popular compositions.” [Wikipedia, Fantaisie – Impromptu, http://bit.ly/29V21dp]) Following his comments, Mr. Majkut’s rendering of Chopin’s Fantaisie – Impromptu was simply gorgeous, performed with an apt combination of emotion and skill. You need not take my word for it, however, as I have an excerpt clip of the concluding few minutes of that performance for you to listen to yourself to make your own judgment:
Ms. McElrath then introduced the last piece, and highlight, of the first half of the concert, Sir Richard Bennett’s Summer Music for flute and piano, by offering some background concerning the composer. Richard Bennett was a prolific and successful (over 200 works for the concert hall, 50 scores for film and television, and numerous jazz songs, 3 Academy Award nominations and a Bafta Award for film scores) British born, late 20th Century composer, whose career was based in New York City. [Wikipedia, Richard Rodney Bennett, http://bit.ly/2aaAhn1] Summer Music for flute and piano is a beautiful, impressive showpiece composition of 3 movements (Summer, Siesta, and Games). In the hands of Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut it was well performed, and again, the highlight of the first part of the program. The first movement (Summer) was a moderate tempo section, with the flute and piano well balanced, and gave Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut another opportunity to demonstrate what a fantastic job they can do of working together in perfect partnership. The second movement (Siesta) had a considerably slower tempo and was quite reminiscent of a show music tune, like the score to a film intro. In this section there was a greater focus on the flute, including some exquisite soaring flute passages executed superbly by Ms. McElrath, with the piano in a more supportive, but quite jazzy role. The third movement (Games) was the liveliest and best of all, and the best of all that was performed during the first half of the concert. Again, I will let you listen to a bit of it yourself, and reach your own conclusions:
After a brief intermission, where many of the audience members refilled their glasses of Grizzly Peak Winery’s remarkable award winning wines, Ms. McElrath returned to the stage to perform the solo flute composition, Kokopeli, by contemporary composer, Katherine Hoover. Kokopeli was influenced by the sounds of Native American music and the Hopi tribe of the American Southwest. [Wikipedia, Katherine Hoover, http://bit.ly/29H1ZXI] A Kokopelli is a fertility deity venerated by Native American cultures in the Southwestern United States, who presides over childbirth and agriculture, is a “trickster” god and also represents the “spirit of music”. [Wikipedia, Kokopelli, http://bit.ly/29OZyDP] The Hoover composition, Kokopeli, is very sedate, almost delicate; I would describe the music as conveying a “fairy-like” narrative. Performed by Ms. McElrath, it was utterly charming.
Mr. Majkut then introduced the next piece, Gabriel Fauré’s Morceau de Concours, explaining that Fauré, frustrated by the poor selection of music available to students of the Paris Conservatoire, wrote the piece so they would have something to play, during a 3-day Bastille Day school vacation in 1898. As the Enchanted Evening audience heard, it is a gorgeous piece, really showing off the flute, played gorgeously by Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut.
Next, Mr. Majkut provided some comments introducing the next section of the concert, three solo piano preludes by Claude Debussy: La Puerta del Vino (The Wine Door), La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair), and La Cathédrale engloutie (The submerged Cathedral). The first of the three preludes, La Puerta del Vino (The Wine Door), is less frequently played than the others, but was specially chosen for this concert at a winery for its apt title, though Mr. Majkut confessed that the piece was really written about a brothel rather than a winery. The second piece, La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair), is named after the eponymous poem by Leconte de Lisle, known for its musical simplicity and one of the most recorded of Debussy’s pieces. [Wikipedia, La fille aux cheveux de lin, http://bit.ly/29HaHVW] The third piece, La Cathédrale engloutie, is a musical allusion to an ancient Breton myth in which “a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing, from across the sea.” [Wikipedia, La cathédrale engloutie, http://bit.ly/2a6hPsR] The pieces are quite different from one another and provide a glimpse of the extensive variety and uniformly high quality of Debussy’s prelude work. The trio of pieces also gave Maestro Majkut an opportunity to show off his prowess with the instrument, and he took full advantage of the opportunity, basically wowing the audience with his impressive piano playing. To give you a taste of the treat experienced by the Enchanted Evening audience, I am providing an excerpt of the little heard first piece, La Puerta del Vino (The Wine Door):
Then after a sustained round of applause, Mr. Majkut exited the stage, and the proceedings paused while Ms. French decorated the piano for the final number, Francois Borne’s Fantaisie brillante sur Carmen. A bright red cape was draped across the piano cover, and a large stemmed red rose and a black sombrero cordobés were placed upon it. Then the artists made a dramatic return: Ms. McElrath had changed costumes for this piece, into a flaming red flamenco dress and black long-sleeved lace shawl, with a red rose in her hair. They then launched into a captivating, energetic performance of a buoyant and highly appealing composition, which was hands-down the audience favorite of “the evening.” It was an extended piece that lasted over 10 minutes, with never a lag, never a dull moment, always mesmerizing the audience. It was also the most animated, liberated performance of the day by the two artists, who clearly relished the opportunity and enjoyed the piece and one another. Since words are failing me here (yes, even the verbose, ultra-lingual writer that I am), I will give you an illustration, of my favorite excerpt from Fantaisie brillante sur Carmen, of the “hat dance” portion midway into the piece.
Upon the conclusion of the performance, the audience responded with sustained, loud, and energetic applause. Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut took several bows, with no end of the boisterous reception in sight, and eventually returned to their instruments, with Mr. Majkut acknowledging that they had prepared and were ready to offer an encore, which turned out to be a portion of John Rutter’s Suite Antique for flute, harpsichord, and string orchestra. Of course, it was again an adaptation and reduction version, with the harpsichord and strings replaced by the piano. Performed by Ms. McElrath and Mr. Majkut it was lovely, and quite sprightly. More than anything else on the program, it featured an extended series of back and forth exchanges between the flute and piano, almost tempting the two artists to challenge one another to rise to higher heights: alright, now watch THIS and see if YOU can top it. On its conclusion, it too was met with boisterous applause. But by then it was fair to say EVERYONE was spent – the long concert had indeed enchanted the audience and drained artists and onlookers alike of the substantial energy devoted to the extensive program of delightful music. Until next time then – and surely there will have to be a next time, as this was too good to be a once and over event.