By Ted AYALA
The concert that closed Pacific Serenades’ season at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena proved a remarkable contrast with the burst of springtime loveliness that was found outside on that sweltering day. Audience members coming into the church’s hall from the glimmering sunlight outside may have been taken aback by the program’s severity of tone. Death and acceptance of it was at the forefront of the program. With the passing of many important figures the past week – most notable were those of author Carlos Fuentes and renowned baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – it was prescient that Pacific Serenades should have devised such a program. It also, in its own way, fit in with the vernal renewal outside. Birth, growth, maturity, and death – everything is cyclical, Pacific Serenades reminded audience members.
Justin Morell’s “Four Songs on Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe” for baritone and string quartet, commissioned by Pacific Serenades, imprinted that seal firmly on the entire program. Comprised of four excerpts from the Roman’s voluminously lengthy poem that attempts to reign in the reader’s fear of death and the unexplainable, Morell’s setting brought a personal quality to Lucretius’ cosmic visions.
Especially remarkable was the third song, “Look Back,” with its glacial high string harmonics that seem to intimate to a realm of consciousness beyond earthly concerns. Such was the beauty of this song that it overshadowed the fourth and final song, which seemed slight in comparison. Perhaps the composer can be urged to reorder the last two songs in the work as “Look Back,” with its preoccupation on mortality and eternity, makes for a far more effective close than “So Big the Rains,” with which the cycle currently closes.
Bass-baritone Michael Dean’s voice was a marvel. Sonorous, broad, and never stentorian, his voice was the ideal classical song voice. At his command is an intelligent musicianship and crisp sense of diction that illuminates every word he sings, bringing them alight with meaning and purpose.
That quality of singing and interpretation he also brought to Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden,” which was, in turn, the inspiration for the heart of one of the most heart wrenching movements in all of Schubert.
That movement – from the composer’s “String Quartet No. 14” – takes the “Death and the Maiden” (which gives the quartet its nickname) as its theme which the composer then weaves into an anguished set of variations speaking of grief and loss.
What made the pain all the more palpable was the musicians’ sense of restraint; their ability to express sorrow without themselves becoming overwhelmed by it. Roger Willkie (1st violin), Miwako Watanabe (2nd violin), David Walther (viola), and David Speltz (cello) played with matchless beauty and a patrician sensibility that kept the tragedy at arm’s length which, thereby, allowed it to sink into the listener all the more powerfully.
Opening the concert was Johan Halvorsen’s reimagining for violin and cello of a passacaglia by George Frederick Handel. Willkie and Speltz were the musicians here, imbuing the music with a romantic patina; unfolding with all the fluid inevitability of life itself.