by Mike Telin
A good song is a good song, and for centuries vocal music has been a fruitful source of repertoire for instrumentalists. In “Songs Without Words,” Les Délices artistic director Debra Nagy has created an inspired program that juxtaposes 17th-century art songs with 20th-century jazz standards.
On Sunday afternoon, October 16 at Herr Chapel of Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights, the baroque oboist unleashed her inner torch song singer with poise. Of course, the important role the rhythm and bass sections play in this music is vital, and harpsichordist Eric Milnes and viola da gambist Emily Walhout performed their roles brilliantly.
Lasting just over an hour, the playlist was built around six emotional levels that are associated with love beginning with feeling speechless. Milnes’s own Prelude grew directly out of the instrument tuning, adding a sense of wonderment from the very start of section titled “Wordless Song.” He sent a clear message that this was not going to be just any period instrument concert. Full of wild harmonic shifts, Milnes semi-improvisatory introduction beautifully modulated into Marin Marais’s “Les Voix” from 2ème Livre de Pièces de viol, gracefully performed by Walhout.
The subject of longing was highlighted during “Feeling Wistful.” Here Nagy joined her colleagues for heart-rending accounts of Johnny Mandel’s Emily, and Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower is a lovesome thing.
“Chains of Love” featured “Rochers je ne veux point” from Airs et Burnettes for solo harpsichord, which Milnes ingeniously used to segue into his arrangement of Aretha Franklin’s classic song, Chain of Fools. Summoning their R&B souls, the Trio played with flair, ending with Milnes dramatically falling onto the keyboard. Emily Walhout’s solo was stunning during Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Recit de la beauté” from Le Mariage Forcé.
Walhout followed the Lully with an elegant account of Marais’s “Prelude in a minor” from 4ème Livre de Pièces de viol, which began “Burning Passion,” but the highlight of the afternoon was the subject of “Heartache.” At this point the Les Délices musicians hit their stride, beginning with a spectacular performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Following De Bousset’s “De mes soupirs, de mes langueurs,” the trio breathed a collective pain during Nina Simone’s melancholy Tomorrow is my turn.
The concert poignantly ended with the message that in spite of all the vicissitudes of love, “I wouldn’t have it any other way…” Following a poetic account of Michel Lambert’s Vos mespris, the trio ended this most fascinating concert with Johnny Mercer’s iconic Autumn Leaves. Highlighted by some wonderful improvisations from Nagy, a laid-back walking bass line from Walhout, and inventive playing from Milnes, this was the perfect conclusion to a forward-thinking program.
Tossing in a final bon-bon, Debra Nagy returned to the stage with her colleagues, this time without her oboe, to reveal her inner jazz singer with a reprise of Autumn Leaves. Her sultry mezzo voice sent the audience home on a satisfying note.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 27, 2016.
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