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Variations on an anthem: Norman Thibodeau

Traditions Renewed

By B.A. Nilsson

Capitol Chamber Artists

First Congregational Church, Albany, Sept. 15

Rosh Hashanah is an old tradition celebrating a new year, so it seemed appropriate that Capitol Chamber Artists’ tribute concert included new works with older beginnings.

A song by CCA co-founder Irvin Gilman dated back to World War II, when flautist Gilman was serving on the U.S.S. Wichita. It began as a poem, written in Yiddish, lamenting his homesickness. “I’ve written a number of poems,” he explained, “but this was the only one I wrote in that language. Why? I have no idea.” But the answer revealed itself in the performance, by tenor Dan Foster, who also arranged the song for voice, piano and violin.

“A Hame” begins with a simple repetition of the title set to an accessible, folksong-like melody. It gains complexity as it progresses and benefits from the Germanic sound of its language, which nicely suits the image, towards the end, of the devil laughing at the destruction wrought by this terrible war. By the time the opening repeats to gently close the song, its meaning is rendered all the more poignant, and the exoticism of the language (to these English-rooted ears) reinforces the plaint of this lonely sailor so many years ago.

Foster, who also served as pianist for much of the concert, has a beautiful timbre to his unaffected voice. With Andre Laurent O’Neil at the piano and violinist Mary Lou Saetta, the ensemble was nicely balanced and the effect disarmingly touching.

Norman Thibodeau was a flute student of Gilman and has gone to an impressive career on that instrument. He’s also a composer, and debuted his Introduction and Variations on Hatikvah for flute and piano, a work that also has long-ago roots, beginning in his student days when the variations portion numbered but one.

“Hatikvah” is the familiar national anthem of Israel, and served its respectful variants well. The introduction sets up a tonal palette that promised crunchy but pleasing complexity—nothing more outré than Stravinsky offers—and the theme itself, with a characteristic four-note phrase, was explored using a wide range of techniques, not least of which were some dazzling contrapuntal moments.

Flautist Gilman reasserted his virtuosity, hiding all of the work’s difficulty behind a confident manner and ear-grabbing tone, while Foster, back at the piano, was a sensitive partner.

O’Neil also demonstrated his dexterity as cellist in some of the program’s ensemble works and soloist in Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” (from the only non-Jewish composer of the evening). No instrument could have suited this work better, and it’s a staple among cellists. O’Neil played it from memory, and might as well have been a cantor at work, so affecting was his tone.

Two trio sonatas by Salamone Rossi opened the program. Rossi bridged the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and is credited with developing the trio sonata form. The works, performed by the full ensemble, are impressively forward-looking, prefiguring the sounds of Bach and Vivaldi.

Saetta soloed in characteristic works by Ernest Bloch and Joseph Achron. Bloch’s Baal Shem Suite is a set of three short works subtitled “Pictures from Chassidic Life.” Saetta chose the last two of them: “Nigun,” a slow, dramatic recitation heightened by frequent tremolos in the piano, and “Simchas Torah,” a lively dance, both of which she played with aplomb.

Less well known is Achron’s “Hebrew Melody,” popularized by Heifetz, heard here in an arrangement for violin with flute, cello and piano. The opening accompaniment is given to the cello, thus giving the fiddle a sinewy line to enter over. The work skillfully builds to a dramatic, plaintive climax, and Saetta showed how much interpretation matters as she took it, at the finish, from a dramatic high E down to a perfectly paced and phrased coda.

A preconcert concert featured the performers in lighter works by Anton Rubinstein, Fritz Kreisler and others, finishing with Foster’s performance of two songs from Fiddler on the Roof: “Sunrise Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” with a flute-violin-cello backing that proves these songs have a home on the formal concert stage.

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