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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Concert Review: A String of Pearls

Harlem Chamber Players celebrate a decade with Harlem Songfest.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Harlem Chamber Players (above) conductor David Gilbert
and five fine singers celebrated ten years of music at Miller Theater.
It was billed as Harlem Songfest, but the season-ending tenth anniversary concert of the Harlem Chamber Players was more in the nature of an operatic gala: albeit one on a very modest scale. The celebration, a mix of Verdi, Mozart, Bizet and other operatic favorites was held at the Miller Theater on Friday evening, celebrating the good works of this excellent community orchestra that calls northern Manhattan its home.

The concert started with a few remarks from Board president Thomas Pellaton. It was followed, appropriately enough by the overture to Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor ("The Impresario") a little-heard early comedy from that composer. The orchestra responded to David Gilbert's direction with bold colors and bright tone, setting the table for the singers that followed.

There were five soloists, and they took turns with the various arias and excerpts, rotating smoothly on and off the stage. Soprano Janinah Burnett took on excerpts from Le Nozze di Figaro ("Deh vieni, non tardar") and Don Giovanni, (a smoothly detailed "Mi tradi" that just missed the height of Elvira's turbulent emotions.)  She also closed the first half with "Amour ranime mon courage", a tour de force from the opera Romeo et Juliette by Gounod.

The other soprano was Brandie Sutton, who took on the only real rarity on the program: "Vieni o tu che ognora io chiamo" from Donizetti's Carterina Cornaro, an example from that composer's vast output that was new to this writer. Even more impressive was her shift to German for "Ach, ich liebte", one of the high-flying coloratura arias written for Constanze, the heroine of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. This is dizzying, dangerous stuff, and Ms. Sutton impressed even when cornered in the narrowest corners of the upper stave.

The third female voice was the most impressive: mezzo-sioprano LKucia Bradford. She stalked onto the stage to sing Ulrica's aria from Un Ballo in Maschera and held it for a duet with Ms. Sutton from Così fan tutte. The singers teamed up again for the Barcarolle from Les contes d'Hoffmann and all three singers united for the Act II curtain raiser from Carmen, engaging in whirling dance and close harmonies as Bizet's rousing music got the whole of Miller Theater clapping along with enthusiasm.

The men did well too. Tenor Chauncey Packer was a swaggering Duke of Mantua and Pinkerton in famous excerpts from Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly. He had the right sneer for "La donna è mobile" condescending and yet charming. Baritone Kenneth Overton took on the biggest number of the evening: Posa's slow, painful death scene from the fourth act of Verdi's Don Carlo. Although he had to force his way into his upper register for the first high notes, he found the later ones more smoothly and sung a moving performance.

The two men came together for a glorous bit of Bizet: "Au fond du temple saint" from The Pearl Fishers, an opera that has finally come back into vogue in New York. This excerpt is its best known number, and a perfectly constructed duo for tenor and baritone. Here, Mr. Gilbert brought out the luxuriant depths of Bizet's orchestration, drawing a hypnotizing performance that transcended the whole concert. Reality returned with the last excerpt: the quartet from Rigoletto which seemed strangely anti-climactic after the beauties that had come before. 

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