... Labelle's voice is like a great shimmering pearl ...
Our music season opened last Friday evening, Sept 15, with a thrilling -- I use the word unabashedly -- performance of the New England String Ensemble with soprano Dominique Labelle.
Violinsts, pianists, in fact all instrumentalists have their own technique and interpretations that are distinctive, but their instruments remain similar in tone. With the only human instrument, the singing voice, no two are alike.
And Dominique Labelle, a widely acclaimed singer, thrilled the audience in Wakefield's First Parish Church on the lake with her very opening crescendo in Benjamin Britten's fascinating "Les Illuminations" with the power and beauty of her sound. Her voice is like a great shimmering pearl, remarkably rounded, smooth, exquisitely flawless throughout the highly dramatic setting by Britten of poems by Arthur Rimbaud.
Susan Davenny Wyner, in her second year as the orchestra's director, can always be counted on to bring not only shrewd conducting skills, but notable music not routinely heard. Last year she offered Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 with this same superb soprano. Wyner knows the Britten score well -- she herself sang it in New York's Lincoln Center some years ago under Andre Previn.
Always professional and dedicated to lofty ideals, the String Ensemble under this conductor has raised the ante -- exciting works, exciting soloists. Her conducting style is charged with energy, precision, and unflagging alertness to the message and mood of every moment of the music. Her welcoming or descriptive words to the audience are offered with her winning warmth.
The opening concert also brought Handel's Concerto Grosso in D Major and Schubert's famous string quartet titled "Death and the Maiden," arranged for string orchestra by Mahler.
But the Britten work was the scene stealer. It's an extraordinary work with a fantastic chiaroscuro of poems from boldly boastful -- "I alone have the keys to ... this savage parade!" -- to cynical, lyric, and pictorially descriptive passages. The soloist projected the text as demended, usually in that satin-smooth sound, but also swooping or adding breathiness for dramatic effect. Britten is always engrossing, never dull, with free-wheeling tonalities but appealing harmonies, vivd rhythms, vaulting melodies, and compelling and dazzling climaxes.
Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet stands as one of chamber music's greatest works. One of my favorite pieces of music, it was beautifully performed this past summer in Chautauqua. Mahler, another favorite of mine, arranged this small work for string orchestra, ostensibly to present it to a larger audience, as well as to be able to conduct it himself. The quartet's heavy drama and profound emotions are, in this version, stirring and compelling.
Having heard this arrangement before, I still prefer it as Schubert wrote it, the individual instrument's playing of each line achingly affecting. The slashing opening chords are effective in full orchestra, but as the surges of tragic impact continue, they tend to become strident with orchestral force. For me, the third and fourth movements were the most successful, containing a livelier balance of configurations and shifting dynamics. Still, music worth hearing; perhaps, as suggested in the program notes, a revelation to some.
Handel's Concerto Grosso in D Major, Opus 6, No. 5, was joyfully energetic, often zippy, vibrant; the conductor and players made the most of each movement's styles, projecting them with the brightness of a freshet.
Gregory Vitale, concertmaster and Emmanuel Feldman, principal cellist, injected richly evocative solos throughout the performance.
September 23, 2000
This review was previosly printed in the Melrose Free Press on September 21, 2000 and is reprinted here with their permission.