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Sunday, 13 September 2009

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George Fredric Handel, Franz Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdi:

Tribute to musical prodigies

The Chamber Music Society of Colombo along with the Goethe Institut, presented a concert at the Goethe Hall on 20th of August to commemorate the bicentennials of three of some of the greatest German-speaking composers of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras; George Fredric Handel, Franz Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdi. It was refreshing to see the Goethe Institut of Colombo, once more, showcasing classical music, a subject they have arguably neglected over the last few years.


Lakshman Joseph de Saram (violin), Ramya de Livera Perera (piano) and Dushyanthi Perera (cello) perform at a concert by the Chamber Music Society of Colombo held at the Goethe Institute recently.
Pic by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The concert began with a short introduction of the composers and performers by Dr. Asoka de Zoysa, after which the Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society, Lakshman Joseph de Saram, made a few remarks on the music and playing characteristics that helped to set the tone of the evening.

The Overture to the "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" by Handel began with the ensemble sounding not its usual robust self. The opening chord and subsequent phrase was actually un-steady, almost apprehensive sounding. The homogeneity of sound and tonal richness that the ensemble is famed for was not present here. The "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" is a cantata composed in 1739 , Handel's second setting of the poem by the great poet John Dryden. The title of the oratorio refers to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. The primary theme of the text is the Pythagorean theory of "harmonia mundi", that music was a pivotal force in the earth's formation. The first performance was on 22 November 1739 in London. The Artistic director of the August 20 performance said they approached the score helped by the visual representation of the marble masterwork, "The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia" by Stefano Maderno, as opposed to an oil painting depicting the saint by Raphael, a lofty idea that was sadly not quite evident in the interpretation.

If there was any apparent slippage in the elite ensemble's formidable technical skills and artistic pedigree in the opening overture, that doubt was completely banished in the next work, the overture and selected dances for Handel's opera "Rodrigo." Truly fantastic playing, such fire and enthusiasm from the stage, that there were many faces of awe registered in the audience. "Rodrigo", is one of the composer's earliest operatic works, and is rarely heard. The story is loosely based on that of an actual 8th-century Visigoth king and conqueror, whose political successes were made complex by his apparent inability to be faithful to his wife. It was fascinating to hear and see the Chamber Music Society change moods from the very sacred *St. Cecilia* to the very secular *Rodrigo. *The pivot in styles was so effective, that no words were necessary to instruct us that we were now very much in the midst of a world of bombast and sensuality, after having eavesdropped on a delicate martyr singing praise to her God. To be constructive in criticism, we felt the double basses could have provided more support, they seemed a touch too detached from the proceedings.

The first work representing Haydn, was his very first symphony. Symphony No 1 in D major. The ensemble effortlessly conveyed the abundance of confidence, melodic invention and sheer lan of this auspicious work in an assured manner. The first movement Presto took off like greased lightening, the Manheim crescendo culminating in an exhilarating explosion of bright D major. The middle movement, Andante, was played with a straightforward sense of conservativeness, and to nit-pick, the vigorous Presto finale unfortunately hi-lighted some untidiness in the faster passages in the first violins.

After the intermission, the concertmaster, Lakshman Joseph de Saram, the principal cellist, Dushy Perera and well-known pianist Ramya de Livera Perera, performed the most famous of Haydn's trios, the "Gypsy Rondo". The first movement was well mannered and pleasing to the ear, the beautifully melodic Adagio was given especially loving care making it possibly a little too sweet for the "father" of the classical era, and the raucous last movement was very entertaining and idiomatic.

Mendelssohn's third string symphony in E minor was intriguing. Quite experimental in nature, it was hard to imagine that a boy of 13 wrote it. As Lakshman Joseph de Saram described how he felt about the opening sequence, that of an angry young boy rebelling against his conservative teacher, the phrase really did speak that. The Adagio was very lyrical and darkly viewed, ending in an ascending passage of violins resting precariously on a suspenseful question mark. The finale was full of energy and boyish enthusiasm, also ending peculiarly, in an abrupt drop of volume and texture.

The concert ended with a re-visitation of the music of Handel. This time, his overture to the opera "Alexander". Brimful of bravado is the only way to describe the ensemble's interpretation. A more than satisfying end to an illuminating program well done.

What we find most interesting and valuable in the concerts of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo, is that the music always 'means' something. There is nothing superfluous or cheap about any aspect of its programming and presentation, and there is always the sense of inevitable forward momentum, excitement, almost ecstasy that the Artistic director Lakshman Joseph de Saram is able to conjure up and project. It is therefore a pity that more people are unable to attend these concerts, the Society having a deliberate policy of not advertising, and performing only in small venues to a select audience. Being a vital component of Sri Lanka's cultural landscape, enjoying broad support with a "carte blanche" mandate to spear-head serious contemporary music of Sri Lanka, we request the Society to be more egalitarian, because as a member of the privileged audience, you benefit from a unique feeling of inclusiveness of the art form, and a renewed respect of classical music making in our country. These merits have to be made available to more.

 

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