Last Saturday’s frigid temperatures didn’t keep Scrag Mountain Music from packing Montpelier’s Christ Episcopal Church for its early-music program. More than 200 folk, many elderly, filled the pews and responded enthusiastically to a program designed to be welcoming to all. (This didn’t include the Mad River Valley crowd, where another hundred filled the Warren United Church for Sunday’s repeat.) And this success is hardly an accident.
Two hundred may not sound like a huge number, but that’s about as many as the super-popular Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival manages at its concerts at the Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester, and that’s in the much more populous and upscale Chittenden County. Last November, Capital City Concerts drew nearly 800, selling out Montpelier’s St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, for its spectacular all-Bach concert, a number the Vermont Symphony Orchestra has trouble matching at Burlington’s Flynn Center these days.
Maybe it’s something in the water.
Until conductor Blanche Moyse’s retirement in 2005, the Brattleboro-Marlboro area was Vermont’s classical music capital, thanks to the Brattleboro Music Center, New England Bach Festival and, of course, Marlboro Music Festival. (Moyse was a co-founder of all three.) With its growing tony population and Jaime Laredo at the helm of the VSO, the Burlington area then took over domination. However, in recent years, the community-oriented BMC has become competitive with the best, as attested to by last weekend’s impressive concerts by the BMC Brattleboro Concert Chorus and its new director.
For eight years now, Scrag Mountain Music has become an integral part of the central Vermont community. It was created by soprano Mary Bonhag and composer and bass player Evan Premo, high-level professional musicians who moved to Vermont to raise a family. While they often leave the state to work, they invite their colleagues from around the state to stay at their Marshfield home, rehearse and perform Scrag concerts.
Although excellence is a big part of it — though there are now many excellent classical music concerts in Vermont — there are two other big reasons for Scrag’s success. First, there is its stated policy of “come as you are, pay what you can,” which makes its concerts available to anyone. Perhaps more important though is that the programs are calculatedly educational, yet designed to keep the interest of the beginner as well as the aficionado.
Last Saturday’s concert, which progressed from the Renaissance to the Baroque, is a perfect example, particularly as a showcase for the era’s vocal music. Bonhag employed her brilliant crystalline soprano in some very diverse music. Of the four simple narrative songs of the French Guillaume de Machaut, only one touched on the beginnings of polyphony. More sophisticated, in three beautifully expressive but delicate songs by John Dowland (1563-1626), Bonhag was expertly accompanied by Paul Holmes Morton on lute.
Then there was the more familiar “modern” music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and George Frederic Handel (1685-1759). Purcell’s “If Music Be the Food of Love” proved a deliciously florid song of many moods, and Bonhag’s able delivery was a delight. But it was the composer’s “An Evening Hymn,” which closed the program, that was truly exquisite in its deep tenderness — reflected in a sensitive and affecting performance.
Handel’s brilliant secular cantata, “Venus and Adonis,” had an even more familiar flavor. And here the complementing instruments played a more important and “modern” role. In particular, the second aria, “Dear Adonis beauty’s treasure,” was a duet between Bonhag’s brilliant lyricism and the rich Baroque oboe, adroitly played by Priscilla Herreid. Unusually, the harpsichord part was played by Morton on theorbo (a giant lute) and occasionally on Baroque guitar (smaller than today’s).
Still, what made this an authentic early-music concert was the instruments — after all, save for the somewhat lower pitch employed, voices didn’t change much over the centuries — and these folks proved expert. In addition to Morton, Herreid proved able on various recorders. Michael Uterman was quite fine on Baroque cello, and Premo proved able on the viola da gamba and bass. They were showcased in instrumental works by Jean-Baptiste Barrière (1707-1747) and John Eccles (1668-1735).
Indicative of Scrag Mountain Music’s success is that most of the audience showed up half an hour early for a demonstration of the early-music instruments.
Heading south, Jonathan Harvey made his debut as BMC’s Brattleboro Concert Choir director, Jan. 11 at the Latchis Theatre, with no less than Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626. (The concert was repeated Jan. 12.) Indicative of the high level of music making in the area was the fact that the 22-piece professional orchestra was made up with locals, including the likes of VSO Associate Concertmaster Kathy Andrew and Marlboro cellist Judith Serkin. No complaints there.
And the 82-voice chorus sounded great. The balance and overall sound was excellent. And the high sopranos — unusually — were right on and sounded beautiful in the difficult passages, most notably in the select group in the opening “Miserere mei, Deus” (c. 1638) by Gregorio Allegri. The articulation and diction were admirable too. Harvey has been doing good work.
The chorus started with a disadvantage though, as Mozart wrote only about a third of his Requiem before he died. The remainder was pieced together by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, an excellent craftsman but no Mozart. The professional soloists — soprano Junko Watanabe, alto Jennifer Hanson, tenor Peter Shea and bass John Salvi — were quite fine and well balanced as a quartet.
Although the chorus could have articulated the contrasts and drama more, the effect was powerful and the nearly capacity crowd enthusiastic. The Brattleboro Concert Choir is in good hands.
And so is classical music in Vermont.