Review: Benjamin Verdery and the Simon Sinfonietta

Stephen Simon, Bonnie Simon, and Benjamin Verdery at the reception after the concert at Highfield Hall.

Bounding out onto the stage area at Falmouth Falmouth Academy in his black tunic shirt with appliqued ribbons of rust brown, gray, and white, Benjamin Verdery looked as much like a rock guitarist as a classical guitarist.

He is both, equally at home with the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix as he is with Bach and Vivaldi. He came to the guitar by way of popular music, but, within a few years had discovered the joy of playing Baroque and classical music and of improvising and composing his own music.

The head of the guitar department at Yale University, a frequent performer in the New York area, where he lives, Verdery has recorded 22 CDs. His latest, “Happy Here” (2011), with fellow guitarist Bill Coulter, includes a representative diverse mix: Irish tunes, Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” the Cream’s “White Room,” and Verdery’s  own composition, “Happy Here,” which seems very aptly named.

This concert (February 18, 2012) with the Simon Sinfonietta, under the direction of Stephen Simon, featured Verdery’s classical side. He played two extraordinarily beautiful guitar concerti, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra in D Major and Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra. Both concerti are well-known for their gorgeous, slow middle movements, Verdery had told me in a pre-concert interview.

The Simon Sinfonietta, which Highfield Hall music director Robert Wyatt introduced as “one of the most magnificent chamber orchestras in the United States,” was in fine form. Perhaps an overstatement, but one which the audience was happy to give their approval to.

The concert began with a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major, “The Prague,” so named because it first performed in 1787 in Prague, a city that was particularly appreciative of Mozart’ work.

The Adagio/Allegro began with a long, solid chord, followed by a series of stately chords and some delicate passages in the violins, the chords seeming to almost reprimand the violins for being light-hearted. The mood was unsettled, not unlike the calm before the storm. The violins persisted, though, and the music turned bright and triumphant.  Simon brought out the drama and delicate beauty of the movement, particularly in the echoing of the theme throughout.

The second movement Andante began slowly, confidently, the theme forceful and insistent, alternately softening and rising again. The performance was smooth, strong even in the softer moments, with oboe and flute offering pensive solos, a nice balance between the low strings and the more lighthearted melodies of the violins and woodwinds.

The final movement (Mozart omitted the traditional third movement minuet in this symphony) Presto began quickly, energetically, pausing for gentle contributions from flute and oboe and some upbeat violin passages before thundering along to a boisterous conclusion.

Verdery followed with Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Guitar, which was originally written for two lutes violin, and continuo, and probably a small organ, according to Simon’s program notes. The sinfonietta performance was with string orchestra and harpsichord played by Jim Jordan.

The first movement of the Vivaldi concerto is wonderfully joyful, and Verdery played it with grace and serenity, his eyes often closed and his head tilted upward, obviously enjoying the piece as much as the audience.

Verdery began the luscious Largo melody gently over very subdued strings, a range of emotions visible in his face and made audible in his expressive playing.

The third movement Allegro opened with a spirited dance by the strings, which the guitar echoed, adding a layer of complexity.  The joyful exchange continued, the harpsichord adding nice balance to the guitar, until the work came to a peaceful conclusion, and eliciting cheers from the audience.

After intermission, Verdery returned for what was to be my favorite piece on the program, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra.  Rodrigo (1901 to 1999) was inspired to write the concerto by the gardens at the 300-acre Palacio Real de Aranjuez (the Royal Palace of Aranjuez) near Madrid, built by King Philip II in the late 1500s, and rebuilt in the mid-1800s by King Ferdinand VI.

Blind since childhood, Rodrigo wanted to convey the nonvisual joys of the garden, the sounds of the birds and the fountains, the smells of the flowers, and their movement  in the wind. Written in 1939, the concerto is known primarily for its poignant middle movement said to be written at his wife’s bedside after her miscarriage, but all three movements are splendid.

Verdery began the first movement Allegro con Spirito alone, giving a vibrant spirit to the lively Spanish melody. Soon the woodwinds joined in, providing accents, and the strings added a bouncing bow (spiccato) rhythmic accompaniment. The orchestra echoed and amplified the melody, and we could feel the joy in the garden, hear the birds, see the flowers bobbing gracefully in the breeze, hear the rippling of the water bubbling and cascading in the fountains, and feel the warmth of the sun on a bright summer day.

Principal cellist Bo Ericcson had a turn at the melody, a lovely interlude, and the sprightly music continued, Verdery handling the complexities of the piece with ease.

The Adagio was gorgeous, almost painfully beautiful in its sadness. It began with a melancholy English horn solo by Donna-Marie Cobert, which Verdery leaned into as he strummed his underlying chords, showing his own appreciation for the legendary solo.  Taking over the melody, Verdery gave it a soulful expressiveness; it was impossible not to be moved by the piece. The conversation between the guitar and the orchestra was very effective, and allowed the guitar to shine both with the orchestra and in extended solos. Verdery used some interesting vibrato and trilling techniques

The songs of the birds and the grace of the garden seemed to return with the gradually slowing, but calm and uplifting, ending of the movement.

The third movement, Allegro gentle, was written in Baroque style, dance-like, bright, and gay, with a precise rhythm, making excellent use of the wind section, played with energy and good humor.

The performance ended with cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.

The final piece on the program was Carl Maria Von Weber’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. Von Weber (1786 to 1826) wrote the symphony in 1807. As Simon pointed out in his program notes, the symphony is rarely performed. That, of course, is one of the reasons Simon chose to perform it. He is uniquely talented in finding infrequently performed music that is well worth performing.

The symphony made good use of the French horn, oboe, flute, and bassoon, with a fine viola solo in the Adagio by principal violist Conselo Sherba. An oboe provided a dramatic moment in the third movement Minuetto and followed it up with a swinging melody, lightly accompanied by strings. The final scherzo was bright and cheery, with frequent pauses for effect, as it raced gaily to its conclusion.

The next performance of the Simon Sinfonietta will be Saturday, March 31 and will feature Mark Miller in another work by Weber, his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. Also on that program is Boyce’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Zwiich’s Concerto Grosso 1985, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major.

And Benjamin Verdery has promised to return sometime soon to perform works written especially for him by Woods Hole composer Ezra Laderman, who teaches composition at Yale.  Verdery has other ties to the Cape—as a child he spent summers in Dennis, where his grandmother lived, and his father was a minister at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea in Hyannisport.

We were very glad to have him back on the Cape to perform and look forward to his next visit.

Ezra and Aimlee Laderman, Stephen and Bonnie Simon, and Benjamin Verdery celebrate at the after-concert reception at Highfield Hall. Verdery’s mother-in-law, Fumi Schmidt, a fashion designer in New York made the shirt for him. Of Japanese heritage, she grew up in Hawaii, where Verdery conducts classical guitar workshops.

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