Monday, February 1, 2010

Classical Review: Denver Eclectic Concerts (Jan 31)

Leave it to Dianne Betkowski and her colleagues at Denver Eclectic Concerts to offer up a program that was the quintessence of the group’s name. Known for offering an interesting mix of musical styles [see this CMB feature story], the concert at the Kirk at Bonnie Brae Sunday evening (Jan 31) featured a cellist who never uses a bow, a Samuel Barber song cycle, and a four-piece ensemble playing music from Mediterranean lands on some of the most interesting instruments ever to grace a classical stage. Oh, and there was also a world premiere of four songs set to poems by James Joyce.

Cellist Stephen Katz (pictured above) has devised a method of playing his instrument that negates the use of a bow in favor of a system he calls “flying pizzicato.” The right (bow) hand plucks at the strings in a guitar-like manner while the left hand does double duty—changing pitch by pressing the strings against the neck in the standard manner, but also flicking at them to create sounds in counterpoint to that generated by the other hand. He performed half a dozen of his own compositions, beginning with a piece titled “Cello-Commotion.” Look for a CD of his music sometime this spring.

Baritone David Farwig was last mentioned in CMB as Aeneas in a concert version of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido & Aeneas. Here he performed Dover Beach by Samuel Barber, a melancholy piece set to a poem by Matthew Arnold and composed between the two world wars. He was accompanied by a string quartet consisting of Jennifer John and Ben Tomkins (violins), Kelly Shanafelt (viola), and Betkowski (cello). Pianist Andrew Cooperstock then joined the ensemble in the premiere of Four James Joyce Songs by Denver violinist/composer David Waldman. The piece is an interesting juxtaposition of melodious vocal line—appropriately tuneful in accompanying the poems written in the early 1900s—and unusual harmonies that are clearly part of post-modern classical music. Farwig has the ideal tonal voice for operatic art songs, wide-ranging yet controlled, but the venue’s poor acoustics sadly did him no favor. It would be interesting to hear him perform Waldman’s piece in a more vocal-friendly atmosphere.

Taking the stage to close the concert was Sherefe, four young musicians whose interest in traditional music from the Balkans and the Middle East has already led to one CD release. The ensemble consisted of Jesse Manno on various guitar-like instruments—laouto (Greek lute) and bouzouki among them—plus Zahara on percussion, Beth Quist on vocals and hammered dulcimer, and James Hoskins on cello and gadulka, a violin-type instrument one plays like a miniature stringed bass. They performed half a dozen dance-type folk tunes from the Greek Isles, Turkey, and Bulgaria.

The next Eclectic Concerts program takes place at The Kirk on Friday, April 16. The evening will feature a Haydn quartet, some original songs by singer/pianist Melissa Axel, and a fusion of balalaika and tango music as envisioned by the Russian group Triunfal.

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