More than anything else, the performance would have been best billed as a recital by bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon. The evening of August 20 drew a group of devoted concert-goers to the final program of Newburyport’s Chamber Music Festival in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Church. The program consisted of five works, four of which prominently featured Galyon as the soloist, often accompanied by the Festival string quartet, sometimes with a solo violin as sole accompaniment.
The evening began with works by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), scored for violin (Adela Peña) and voice. To both Peña’s and Galyon’s credit, each work was presented with the improvisatory air of folk music being performed at a local pub. Yet larger issues plagued the work — performing at the bottom of his range, Galyon was often either inaudible or incomprehensible. At other times, ensemble work seemed inconsistent, particularly in faster settings such as It was a Lover and His Lass or The Tailor and the Mouse.
The performance also featured Galyon in two cantata-like works, with the Festival string quartet violinists Adela Peña and David Ehrlich, violist (and NCMF Music Director) David Yang, and cellist Caroline Stinso, as accompaniment. Although the three movements of Samuel Barber’s work, performed attacca, were difficult to differentiate in character or mood, Galyon performed Barber’s Dover Beach with the stark combined serenity of Matthew Arnold’s Poetry and Barber’s music.
Galyon also premiered Kile Smith’s Plain Truths, settings of texts from Newburyport writers and thinkers set for baritone and string quartet. The title was taken from the subtitle of a self-published work of Timothy Dexter (1748-1806): A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress. The middle piece, “Plain Truths,” is from Dexter’s “remarkable chunk of writing,” as Smith refers to it. His work is an integration of various musical languages all in service of the textual context. While movements such as “I Am Aware” and “Plain Truths” featured a through-composed arioso performed over a harmonically complex backdrop, other movements presented ballads that hailed back to an early-American sound-world. “Annie Lisle” is particularly heart-rending. The work couldn’t have received a better premiere; this sensitive reading of the work illustrated Smith’s piece in the vivid colors with which it was so obviously conceived.
The evening concluded with a performance of Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1, the “Kreutzer Sonata,” providing Galyon with some well-deserved rest. In broad strokes, Saturday’s performance of this quartet evoked the general sense of the work, yet significant technical issues plagued the performance. The nave of St. Paul’s, although a beautiful performance space, also swallowed some of the detailed work required of the instrumentalists. Difficulties in hearing other members of the ensemble combined with sweltering August heat surely contributed to the significant tuning issues that plagued the entire work. In a different venue, a performance of this work may have allowed the performers a more cohesive performance.
Technical difficulities aside, the ensemble was greeted with enthusiastic applause and ultimately, standing ovation at both intermission and the conclusion of Saturday’s performance. The ensemble rewarded such a warm response from Newburyport’s audience with a vivid encore of Vivaldi’s Orribile lo Scempio “(Horrible, the Slaughter”; also sung as Terribile lo Scempio).