Reviews ...

Beethoven Society recital brings joy to a Sunday outing

 ... Stringers discover great secret here in our town

by Jackie Wattenberg, notes and photos by Don Norris

No nerves at all, Erna Hooten casually hands out programs to early arrivals; from the left, clockwise, are Starr Demitri, Ms. Hooton-Koester, John Mantanus, Charlie Sullivan and (seated) Phil Pendleton.

A senior dramatic soprano, a recent conservatory graduate with lyric soprano voice, and a guitarist with terrific technique drew an unusually large and responsive audience on Sunday afternoon in January. This was supposed to be the standard Beethoven monthly meeting, but it was more than that for the beauty these three talented artists provided.

Erna Hooten-Koester, born and raised in Germany, Bill Morris, founder with his wife Dottie of the Cafe Emerson coffee house, and Mandy Feiler, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, offered a varied and exciting program. It was held in the beautiful vestry of the Highlands Congregational Church.

Wearing a colorful German folk dress, Ms. Hooten-Koester sang Wagner, Schubert, Mozart and Lehar in a clear and lovely German, her voice richly colored and full-bodied. Accompanied by Starr Demitri, she took care to express each song with intelligence and awareness of each work's message, wholly absorbed in the music's style. She has maintained the firmness of tone and is responsive to effective dynamics in the variety of her songs.

Bill Morris arranges each song he performs in his own inimitable style, which means total dominance of his guitar, compelling it to execute his tricks and turns, fast and furious, or easy and reflective, and with original rhythmic enery and harmonic surprises. The golden oldie "Ain't She Sweet?" was irresistibly effervescent, a piece about Spain was striking and almost classical, and his own composition was a delight in harmonic and melodic invention. Relaxed and congenial, he's an original.

Rounding out the program was Mandy Feiler, a 25-year-old from Malden who performed songs by Mahler and Satie with insight and musicality, and Puccini's "O Mio Bambino Caro" with girlish charm suited to the part of the beseeching daughter. Her voice flows with a facile lightness and consistancy of lovely tone; and also has a nice warmth. She described each song first with unpretentious spontaneity. Menotti's stunning aria from "The Old Maid and the Thief" was performed with a sensitive realization of its range of mood from amusing and impetuous to a dramatic climax of loneliness and desperation. She is a very promising young singer, with fine range and attractive appearance. John Montanus was her accompanist.

The background for Beethoven ...
Notes from Stringer editor Don Norris

What a marvelous find. Such beauty on a Sunday afternoon, such a wonderul surprise to find in one's home town.

Yet the Beethoven Society has been producing these recitals for most of the last century, having been put together in 1927 and offering strictly classical, according to treasurer Phillip Pendleton. From October through June the sounds of professional and amateur musicians ring here in Melrose; it is one of our town's best kept secrets.

Yes, secrets, for while Jackie Wattenberg described a "large audience", I counted sixty souls in the Highlands Congregational Church that afternoon. Apparently, the Beethoven Society has a constant but steady membership of "about 50", Mr. Pendleton said.

Even more amazing is the fact that the performing musicians do not get paid for these performances. There is no admission fee, but there is a donation pot. And there is an annual membership, although most of the money collected is handed out to Melrose High School students after the traditional June competition.

Frankly, the Beethoven Society -- and the Melrose Symphony, and the Polynnia Society, plus the couple hundred other civic and social organizations -- make Melrose a gem in North Shore suburbia. It is a good place to settle down. There's a lot to do here.

The Beethoven Society has as its current president a professional violinist, Lino Tanaka of Quincy. In recent years (Mr. Pendleton commented) the society has expanded its scope and now includes, on occasion, American folk music, show tunes, even popular selections.

"We have become more flexible," he said.

The society is populated by folks from many surrounding communities, although some half of the membership are Melrosians. They meet monthly, usually at either the Unitarian-Universalist church on West Emerson, or the Highlands Congregational on Franklin. They also met recently at the First Methodist Church on Main Street, and have been trying to interest other houses of worship to host their Sunday afternoon recitals.

They do pay the churches, but that amount is not up to, ah, union scale. The society gets a good deal, I believe.

Charlie Sullivan of Melrose is the vice president, and Melrose SilverStringer Jackie Wattenberg is the program chairman -- which is strange, for she has been with the Society for only a year. The day she walked in, she walked out as program chairman.

"We usually have three performers at each meeting," Phil Pendleton said. "I have to admit, however, that the program at the January meeting was exceptional."

The Society has chosen (I find unusual) not to seek reviews on a regular basis. As for the January program, it was this Mirror reporter  who put this non-review together, cajolling with Jackie Wattenberg to provide the above commentary. She did it because of the exemplary production at the January recital.

Phil Pendleton later said that there are a lot of success stories that come out of the Beethoven Society's activities -- people who go on to professional level, and become widely known for their accomplishments. He started to tell of one Society guest who went on to the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- a story he agreed to hold for another issue of the Mirror.

John Montanus, who is a fixture on the Melrose musical scene, will give a piano recital on Sunday, February 8. 3 p.m., at the Unitarian-Universalist Church. Featured will be the music of Mozart and Schubert.

February 6, 2004

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