PATRICE MICHAELS BEDI, JEFFREY COHAN, AND DILEEP GANGOLLI
Augustana Lutheran Church
Until the early 80s Chicago was overlooked by most musicians scouting for a home base. The career-minded preferred New York; the adventurous chose the west coast and Boston, where audiences welcomed the unusual. Chicago had its symphony and two opera companies, and radio- and TV-commercial producers provided lucrative though anonymous employment for a selected few free-lancers. But a sense of community, of welcome, was lacking.
Things had started to change by the time viola da gambist Mary Springfels arrived almost ten years ago and founded the Newberry Consort. Some of her early-music colleagues came to take a look and then stayed. Eventually there were several fine original-instrument groups–the City Musick, the Orpheus Band, His Majestie’s Clerkes. New-music and chamber-music composers and performers also began settling down here, glad not to be part of the east-coast rat race.
Soprano Patrice Michaels Bedi came here about the same time Springfels did, and after a couple of years as an adjunct member of Lyric Opera’s Center for American Artists she decided to stay. The decision must have been tough, for most opera singers want to appear onstage at the Met. I first heard her sing at a Curtis Hall recital shortly after she arrived. Her voice was already velvety, and her presentation was vivacious. Over the years, under the tutelage of voice coach Thomas Wikman, her artistry has improved. Not surprisingly, she now is the most sought after singer in the city, for her voice and for the esprit de corps she encourages.
Bedi was one of three performers in a concert that kicked off the three-week Hyde Park Chamber Festival, which was masterminded by Jeffrey Cohan, a well-regarded flutist who emigrated from Seattle three years ago after his wife was accepted into graduate school here. The third member of the trio, clarinetist Dileep Gangolli, also moved to Chicago to accommodate his wife’s career and is now a doctoral student at Northwestern.
Their chamber recital, in the modernist chapel of Augustana Lutheran Church, had the relaxed camaraderie that can be conveyed only by musicians who enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. The program was eclectic and generous, filled with the kind of less-known pieces instrumentalists are eager to share with an audience. For the first half the spotlight was on the flute and clarinet. In Hector Villa-Lobos’s 1924 Chorus no. 2, which opened the concert, the two instruments engage in a good-natured, tangolike exchange. In Halsey Stevens’s Five Duos for Flute and Clarinet (1966), the mellow dialogue seems to last forever. The music begins expansively with a wistful air, but then meanders through a series of vaguely French and American tunes, too much in love with its own quaintness.
Jazz Set (1974), by clarinetist and Dave Brubeck sidekick William O. Smith, is predictable. A pioneer in the use of multiphonics, Smith incorporated a lot of unconventional tones in this cute, neatly crafted piece. Gangolli made the clarinet’s wails and shrills quite showy. In an ecumenical spirit Smith also wrote a flute showcase the same year: Tribute to the Flute, a playful introduction to the instrument in which the flutist displays his bag of tricks as he responds to the narrator’s commentary. Cohan demonstrated his mastery and was also hilarious in his pantomime. The rapport between him and Bedi, the speaker, was delightful to see.
Their rapport was also obvious in their performances of two French songs: Andre Caplet’s “Ecoute, mon coeur” and Jacques Ibert’s “Deux steles orientees.” Written in the mid-1920s, when Parisians were still enthralled with orientalism and French symbolism, both songs convey a yearning for the exotic, for an idealized love. In the Caplet, whose text is by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, soprano and flute echo each other’s sentiments; the music is sinuous, reminiscent of Delilah’s aria from Saint-Saens’s Samson and Delilah. In Ibert’s skillfully nuanced song, the flute is reduced to a mere accompanist; in the first part the singing is sensuously languid, in the second much more assertive, insistent. Bedi’s singing was a model of clarity and ardor.
Improvisations using selections from Tagore’s verse opened the concert’s second half, which consisted solely of vocal works. Bedi, whose husband has family in India, seems very fond of that culture; she and Cohan turned Tagore’s whimsical aphorisms into amusing, seemingly effortless impromptus. Much more serious and taxing are Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Three Vocalises. Dashed off right before his death in 1958, these are basically vocal exercises without words in three different tempi. The soprano is required to pirouette in the upper register, to be a coloratura for virtuosity’s sake. She must also match her voice to the clarinet’s–which Bedi did with supple grace. Her siren calls were radiant.
The three songs from 1931 by English composer Gordon Jacob are quasi-madrigals. Like his mentor Vaughan Williams, Jacob was keenly interested in reviving 16th- and 17th-century English music and was talented at transcription. “Of All the Birds That I Do Know,” based on a 17th-century anonymous text, has a chirpy disposition. Dolefulness is the dominant emotion in “Flow My Tears,” based on a poem by John Dowland. “Ho, Who Comes Here?” based on a Thomas Morley poem, has the majestic grandeur of a Handelian aria yet is also brashly cheerful. The vocal range of these peculiar songs is on the high side, as if they had been written for a castrato. Bedi and Gangolli were skillful in downplaying their archaic nature.
Aaron Copland was of course much better than most composers at weaving folk tunes into his music, and Shaker melodies can be detected in his “As It Fell Upon a Day,” a chamber work written in 1923 just after he returned from Paris. Scored for soprano, flute, and clarinet, and using a text by the Elizabethan poet Richard Barnefield, the piece opens with an extended happy-go-lucky music-hall overture. The jauntiness carries over into the song, but gradually the mood shifts to poignancy and then nostalgia, evoking the picket-fence America of some of Barber’s music. The performance was a heartwarming display of chamber-music camaraderie.