River Oaks Chamber Orchestra serves up a wild and engaging musical feast

Sun Feb 11, 2018 at 1:29 pm
By Sherry Cheng

Timothy Jones was the vocal soloist in the world premiere of Mark Buller’s “Nursery Rhymes” and “Tombstone Songs” with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra Saturday night.

A Houston punk rock legend front and center at a classical concert, a virtuoso concertmaster, a stellar bass-baritone singing nursery rhymes and tombstone epitaphs, and three world premieres. Throw in a couple of Dvořák’s Legends and the rarely heard Wood Notes by William Grant Still, and we have a strange brew of a program that surprised and engaged.

The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s annual conductorless concert took place Saturday night at Houston’s Church of St. John the Divine, led by violinist Scott St. John.

The evening began with the world premiere of a delightful set of Nursery Rhymes by Houston-based composer Mark Buller. Eleven miniatures, fleshed out with colorful orchestration, clever rhythmic and motivic play, and expressive melodic writing, took flight in the imagination. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones breathed life into each rhyme with his natural sense of drama and expression. Even his physical gestures, wide open arms, a lick of the lips, a furrow of the brow, a yawn, brought out the whimsy and humor in the text and music. In the more lyrical “Lullaby” and “Bonny Lass, Pretty Lass,” Jones gave lovely shape to simple phrases with subtle shadings of his voice. The low last notes were long, deep, and resonant.

Also heard was Buller’s Tombstone Songs, another ROCO-commissioned world premiere.  Though the text of all seven songs are taken from real tombstone inscriptions, the overall tone is comic. As with Nursery Rhymes, Buller’s dry wit and knack for comedic timing shine through again in this set. Dramatic writing for the orchestra contrasted well with Jones’s sardonic delivery. (It’s hard to suppress laughter when the line “she died of eatin’ watermelin” is sung with a straight face.) The offbeat pizzicato and use of woodblocks in “Old Clerk Wallace” breaks into a raucous circus band lick when “the Devil sent him Anna” for a wife. The audience was completely delighted with these pieces, as evidenced by the laughter throughout.

The focal point of the concert was a tribute to Houston punk rock legend Christian Kidd. Chicago-based composer Dan Visconti is well-known for writing pieces that have meaning for the local community. For 40 years Kidd, as frontman for The Hates, has been an inspirational presence on the Houston punk scene. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer a year and a half ago, the community rallied around him and his family. After a year of grueling treatment, he has been declared cancer-free and returned to performing just last week.

The leading man for The Hates is really all about love. In writing Legendary Love, Visconti was inspired by the love between Christian and his wife Alexis, manifested through the love poems he writes to her on a regular basis. He saw Kidd as a modern-day troubadour.

The ten-minute work, also a world premiere,  begins with the orchestra uttering the voiceless consonants of “ph” and “ch” to imitate the sound of distant waves. These stagger and fade until a plaintive melody, voiced beautifully by a single viola then freely looped through the section, appears in the foreground. Thereafter the structure is harder to discern in the aleatory nature of the piece, with cells repeated and patterns vamped until they built to a heroic climax. A return to the sound of ocean waves leads to an asynchronous recitation of a moving love poem by Kidd. As the words “an inspired self-expression” recede with the last wave, the glassy sound of string harmonics, gong, and chimes captured a feeling of the ethereal.

Although Legendary Love had its engaging moments, the inspiration of the work is more likable than the musical results. St. John led the orchestra admirably through wide swaths of senza misura passages, but one wished for more substantial treatment of his material than the square rhythms and simple scale patterns offered.

The two Dvořák Legends on the program, No. 6 and No. 9, showed off the lush string sound of the orchestra. The lower strings, violas and cellos, were especially full-bodied. Thoughtful phrasing added depth to these gems.

Concertmaster Scott St. John added a surprise showpiece not listed on the program, Dvořák’s virtuosic and rarely performed Mazurek. This was the perfect vehicle for St. John to shine. The technical elements (a ton of double stops) were executed perfectly, and he was most expressive and poised in the tender statements of the lyrical second theme. However, a stronger sense of dance and more forward movement in phrasing would have added more zest to the performance.

The concert concluded with a gorgeous rendering of William Grant Still’s Wood Notes (1947). The Suite in four movement reflects Still’s love of nature. The writing is picturesque throughout. Fresh melodies shimmer against traditional harmonies, and simple ideas gain poignancy through effective scoring. The ROCO brass called out with a golden tone above the sweeping movement of the strings in “Singing River,” and an evocative flute solo brought a chill to “Autumn Night.” The sweeping long lines full of pathos lent atmosphere to “Moon Dust” and the Copland-esque “Whippoorwill’s Shoes” bounced with irrepressible energy and good humor.

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