For Intro to Music Criticism:
How many sounds can a small ensemble produce? If the composer is Ravel, and the performers are as attuned to color as harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and friends, it’s a rich variety of deep hues, prismatic splashes, sensual undulations, swooshes, pops, and chimes, that delight and astonish.
This wonderful collage was on display in Finney Chapel on Tuesday in the inaugural Artist Recital Series concert, which featured Kondonassis, the Jupiter String Quartet, and various other Oberlin faculty and alumni playing the music of Ravel.
Comparing Ravel to a master painter with a vibrant palette of instrumental colors is one of the most hackneyed descriptions in music, but there’s substantial truth to the cliché, as his Introduction et Allegro illustrates. Written to show off the capabilities of the Érard pedal harp, the work includes sweeping cadenzas that contain subdued melodies and rainbow harmonies. Kondonassis flawlessly executed virtuosic passages, keeping the audience riveted on her seldom-seen-solo instrument.
The harp alone would have been delightful, but Ravel complements it with a string quartet, flute, and clarinet, the Jupiter, Alexa Still, and Richard Hawkins respectively on Tuesday. All of the musicians blended and balanced beautifully, sounding like a much larger ensemble.
The plucked notes of the harp had a counterpart in the String Quartet in F, the second movement of which contains guitar-like pizzicato. The Jupiter’s reading was bursting with life, the members vivaciously throwing phrases and accents at each other. The mercurial first movement demonstrated the ensemble’s airtight communication. A crazed explosion of the main theme was an ecstatic highlight, the musicians completely invested in their parts. The third movement’s slow float upwards from dark shadows to angelic chords was masterfully managed by the Jupiter, who maintained a long emotional narrative throughout, each moment influencing the next.
Two vocal cycles, with Oberlin alum soprano Ellie Dehn, rounded out the set. In Cinq melodies populaires grecques, Ravel set Greek folk songs, performed on Tuesday in an arrangement by Carlos Salzedo with harp accompaniment instead of the original piano. Dehn caressed the simple melodies, shaping them as if they were long operatic phrases. “Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques,” a tender expression of love, was particularly exquisite.
Chansons madécasses, for flute, cello, piano (Spencer Myer, another Oberlin alum), and voice, contains some of Ravel’s most dissonant music. “Nahandove” suffered at first from balance issues between Dehn and Daniel McDonough (from the Jupiter Quartet) on cello, with McDonough’s thick tone muting Dehn’s intertwining lines. When the rest of the musicians entered, the unevenness righted itself. Dehn was entrancing in the blood-curdling “Aoua!” as she became a mad tribal elder relating tales of carnage.
Both halves of the concert began with an introduction of the pieces by Assistant Professor of Music History James O’Leary and Associate Professor of Music Theory Sigrun Heinzelmann. Though the background they proffered was interesting, it stretched a short concert into a long one. Despite that, it was still a fine evening, a celebration of an excellent composer that was full of color and élan.