Last Saturday night, Southwest Chamber Music opened the 20th anniversary season of their annual Summer Festival. Stravinsky’s Octet and Mozart’s Gran Partita provided the primary motivation for attending, especially if one happened to be a fan of wind instruments. But deep in the hundred acre woods of The Huntington where Jeff von der Schmidt and his musicians play, something — and someone — else ended up being the most enchanting part of the evening: Oliver Knussen’s Hums & Songs of Winnie the Pooh, admirably sung by the young soprano, Delaram Kamareh.
Knussen wrote an early version of the work in 1970, but didn’t publish it in its final form until 1983, not long before he finished two larger, more famous works that were also inspired by children’s literature: Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!
The ten part Hums & Songs of Winnie the Pooh is about as far as anything can be from the sing-along Disney aesthetic that may first spring to mind. The composer has distilled his own childhood remembrances of A.A. Milne’s work into a series of brief, abstract moments, some a minute in length or less. Think Anton Webern meets a Heffalump.
Knussen uses a small battery of five chamber musicians to provide the foundation for a veritable minefield of a soprano part, full of difficult passages and extreme highs and lows of vocal range. Moreover, recognizable words are outnumbered by humming and buzzing (bees guard honey, as Pooh fans know), making projection out to the audience more difficult.
We would have been hard pressed to have asked for a better proponent than Ms. Kamareh. From the moment the young soprano appeared on the Logia at The Huntington until she took her final bow, she captivated the audience. It started with the way she confidently walked towards the stage looking like a runway model in a striking, from-fitting white dress with a bright red lightning bolt across its front. Her singing was even more of a show-stopper.
She has a purity in her voice that is easy to enjoy, pin-point technique, and a remarkable range: when she made her way through the highest parts of the score, towards a reported B-flat above High C (!!), it sounded almost effortless even though you knew it wasn’t. Just as importantly, especially for this work, she successfully imbued her performance with just the right emotion and expressivity: a pouty look here, a mischievous grin there, forlorn one moment and determined the next. It was utterly charming.
Delaram Kamareh. Remember that name — she is definitely one to keep your eyes and ears on in the coming years.
The concert opened with a chipper rendition of Stravinsky’s Octet, a three movement work for woodwinds and brass. Mr. von der Schmidt led with physical restraint but rhythmic incisiveness. It was a pleasure to hear.
After intermission, a larger contingent of Southwest’s winds (plus a lone double bass) performed Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major, better known as the Gran Partita. It was well-played, but no matter how pretty it sounded, the meandering seven-movement, 40+ minute work sounded rather ordinary — even dull — after the ear-opening first half of the concert. A certain sameness in the dynamics and tempi, never varying much from a comfortable mezzo-forte and moderato, didn’t help.
Regardless of what I may have thought, the rest of the audience on the Logia seemed to enjoy it thoroughly and gave it a healthy round of applause.
Random other thoughts:
- The printed program for this summer’s festival is a beautiful 8×11 glossy, full-color thing of which Southwest should rightly be proud — expect for one glaring miscue: artists bios are NOT included anywhere in the program, and instead, a small footnote mentions that “Artist bios may be found at http://www.swmusic.org/about_us/musicians.html ”
- I doubt more than a handful of people are going to take the time to go online to look for those bios, and even fewer are likely to remember the unwieldy URL.
- I think it is perfectly reasonable for the actual members of Southwest Chamber Music who regularly appear with the ensemble; however, I think it is a huge inconvenience, even disrespectful, when it comes to the soloists appearing during the summer.
- Perhaps in upcoming concerts for the rest of the summer, Southwest will consider inserting one-page bios of these guest artists. At this particular concert, I’m sure the audience would have appreciated being able to learn more about Ms. Kamareh, especially after such a stunning performance.
- After the final note of the Stravinsky Octet wafted into the cool San Marino air, Mr. von der Schmidt dropped his hands to his side . . . and the audience did nothing. The members of the well-behaved crowd either wanted to wait until the conductor turned around to applaud or they didn’t know the work was over. In any case, after Mr. von der Schmidt turned around and prodded just a little, the crowd responded with a hearty ovation.
Southwest Chamber Music: July 13, 2013; The Logia at The Huntington
Jeff von der Schmidt, conductor
Delaram Kamareh, soprano
(Larry Kaplan, flute; Jim Foschia, clarinet; Judith Farmer & Dana Jackson, basson; Tony Ellis & Daniel Rosenboom, trumpet; Alvin Veeh & Terry Cravens, trombone)
Knussen: Hums & Songs of Winnie the Pooh, Op. 6
(Larry Kaplan, piccolo/flute; Jonathan Davis, English horn; Gary Bovyer, clarinet/contra-bass clarinet; David Johnson, percussion; Peter Jacobson, cello)
Mozart: Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major, K. 361, Gran Partita
(Jonathan Davis & Victoria Sabonjohn, oboes; Jim Foschia & Helen Goode, clarinet; Gary Bovyer & Peter Nevin, basset horns; Andrew Pelletier, Nathan Campbell, Joseph Ognibene & Peter Loredo, French horn; Judith Farmer & Dana Jackson, bassoon; Tom Peters, double bass)
Photo credits: Tim Strempfer, exclusively for All is Yar