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Festival Vancouver (Brown/Mah, Buechner, Tanga)

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Festival Vancouver opened last week and continues through this week. The Festival produces a number of concerts and lectures, free and paid, across numerous venues in Vancouver, BC, from the Orpheum Theatre (one of the few full-length concerts) to Christ Church Cathedral to the front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to jazz clubs to a new outdoor park series.

The theme this year is "Music of the Americas."

I was on vacation last week, and saw a number of concerts. Three were exceptional.

Last Monday soprano Donna Brown and guitarist Andrew Mah, appearing as "Duo Brazil", performed a program of Brazilian music, mostly vocal (with a few guitar solos by Mah), with arrangements for guitar by Mah. The composers ranged from the early 20th century (Villa-Lobos, Pixinguinha) to contemporary (Almeida, Mah himself), and there was great breadth of style.

Brown has a light but rich coloratura soprano voice, and the high notes she floated in Christ Church Cathedral were gorgeous. While in general my preference is for mezzos, her caressing phrasing won out. She's an opera singer as well, but in this music, she sounded idomatic, without vestiges of crossover, and the encore, to "Girl from Ipanema" was a knockout. Mah is a superb guitarist and musician, and his rhythmically complex arrangements were the highlight of the concert.

Later that day, I attended a lecture/demo by Sara Davis Buechner, who would perform a program for piano of composers she had known plus foxtrots last Wednesday. She started the lecture by saying that she expected 10 UBC students -- she's taught there since 2003 -- in the front row with their notepads and was surprised to see us all. She said that the night before she had been performing and was robbed, her wallet gone along with the speech she had written for the presentation, and gave a quick, biting visual of a junkie on Hastings Street reading her notes. She has a wicked sense of humor and was thoroughly engaging as she described the musical context and related anecdotes about the composer Ray Green and one of her teachers, the pianist Byron Janis. Janis, who resembles Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons", growled out at her at her first lesson with him -- she was in her late 20's -- "What is music?", and she proceeded to describe what she called a "UBC lecture", and he growled back, "Music...is song and dance."

That was a lesson she learned well: everything she plays sings and dances. I stayed in Vancouver an extra few days -- I know, beat me, twist my arm, make me suffer -- to hear the recital itself. It opened with UBC faculty member Stephen Chatman's recent "Mountain Spirit", which she commissioned, and whose title is the name of a painting by Lawren Harris, whose work both she and the composer admire. The second piece, the short "Elegy for Daisy", written by Dorothy Chang, another member of the UBC faculty, in memory of a young student of Buechner's who died, was ravishing.

Composer Ray Green was influenced by and was a friend of Aaron Copland; his wife was May O'Donnell in the Graham company. His "Festival Fugues" was a strong work that flew in the face of the classical, atonal standards of the day when he wrote it in 1949, and the "Prelude Pastorale" was especially lovely.

In a program that was one highlight after another, for me the richest work was Joaquin Nin-Culmell's "Danzas Cubanas", from which Buechner played eight excerpts. (Nin-Culmell's sister was the writer Anais Nin.) I'm not trained in any way, but the fusion of dance and something that I could only intuit as structure was deeply satisfying, and I wished I had heard the missing four.

Buechner ended the printed program with Four Foxtrots by Gerschwin ("Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "He Loves and She Loves"), Jesse Greer ("Ragamuffin"), and Dana Suesse ("The Surest Cure for the Blues"). She has performed a number of Gershwin pieces from transcriptions by Artis Wodehouse. It isn't clear from the program whether these two were by Wodehouse, but Buechner created the arrangements of the Gree and Suesse (who also wrote "You Ought to Be in Pictures"). Her encore was a soulful arrangement of "The Man I Love".

One of the pieces she performed at the lecture/demo but not at the concert was one she said was an obscure piece from a 1926 Gershwin piano roll. I recognized the piece immediately from "Who Cares?", but the name of the piece on her Gershwin CD is "Maybe." However this isn't listed in the Balanchine Catalog entry. I haven't seen "Who Cares?" in a while and my VHS tape from the PBS presentation is in storage, but I know in the reprise of the melody, the women move downstage with a jump, kicking their bent leg back towards their head during each phrase, like an unassisted Biellman spin in figure skating.

If I had to describe Buechner's style, I'd call it fearless, with no trappings of genre. She would make a mean pianist in "The Concert." I am very happily listening to her recording of the Gershwin now.

What is remarkable about these "short" concerts is that they are performed straight through. Buechner did a short intro before the Gershwin set, as she put it, "because there's no backstage, and I needed a break."

The last notable concert was one of the free outdoor concerts in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, by the anglo-Latin group Tanga, which performed a wide range of rhythmically intricate salsa and mambo pieces, some of them originals.

Another free concert was a dress rehearsal for joint performance by a choir from Argentina, Grupo de Canto Coral, conducted by Néstor Andrenacci, and the Vancouver Cantata Singers, led by Eric Hannan. They met at this rehearsal for the first time, and their first joint run-through of the first part of Brahms' "A German Requieum" wasn't fully cooked, as to be expected, but was a great treat. I wish I could have been there for the actual concert this past Sunday.

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If I had to describe Buechner's style, I'd call it fearless, with no trappings of genre. She would make a mean pianist in "The Concert." I am very happily listening to her recording of the Gershwin now.

Now THAT I would like to see (and hear). :o:D

This event sounds wonderful. Vancouver in August, I remember from years ago, is heavenly, and you make the events come to life. If you liked the selection of Danzas Cubanas, try Nin-Culmell's various tonadas (tunes for singing and/or dancing) from Catalunya and other Spanish regions. Elegant, lilting, authentic (in his refined way) and also quite danceable.

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I have really enjoyed the Nin-Culmell songs, in particularly how he finds the voice in each type of song. I was struck by how a couple of the Catalan songs reminded of "Songs of the Auvergne."

On the Opera-L list, Janos Gereben just posted a link to the Spanish website for Nin-Culmell's opera "La Celestina", not performed before his death, that will premiere in Madrid on September 19.


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