‘To Breathe Free’ Another Milestone for Resonance Works

Maria Sensi Sellner Leads Ensemble Through a Splendid 10th Anniversary Program

By George B. Parous

Resonance Works gave a diverse and highly entertaining, celebratory concert last evening at the First United Methodist Church, Bloomfield, which will be repeated Sunday afternoon at the Carnegie Music Hall in Carnegie. Those familiar with this excellent performing arts non-profit heard a mixture of the old and the brand new, splendidly played and sung by a large group of exceptionally talented musicians; or, in other words, a concert to be expected of this ensemble. Those not so familiar are encouraged to enjoy tomorrow afternoon’s matinee in Carnegie for a truly fulfilling musical experience.

The two-part, four-piece program is an engaging combination of works, including one performed during Resonance Work’s inaugural season, and a world-première composed by Gilda Lyons for the occasion. Ms. Lyons is probably best known locally for her 2015 opera, A New Kind of Fall-Out, wonderfully performed that year by Pittsburgh Festival Opera (then Opera Theater of Pittsburgh). Her compositions are decidedly contemporary and abstract, and last evening’s first hearing of An Anchor in Time was distinctly in keeping with her combination of “renaissance, neo-baroque, spectral, folk agitprop, music theater, and extended vocalism” elements in style. Scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins, two violas, two cellos, a double bass, and mezzo-soprano and baritone vocal soloists, the very difficult score was brilliantly played by the orchestra under Maria Sensi Sellner’s customary tight and precise direction.

For her lyrics, Lyons takes a complex mixture of texts, written by such diverse sources as F. Scott Fitzgerald, the New York Times, two eleven-year-olds and others. As she has written, Lyons “turned to text that looks in both directions… looking back into the public record and poetry of the past and forward through the eyes of children…”  Each is the anchor in time which inspired her title for the work. A more appropriate commission for Resonance Works and their special occasion would be hard to imagine.

The music makes great demands on the vocal soloists as well. Timothi Williams, mezzo-soprano, we last heard in Resonance Works’ Rigoletto, and the wish to hear more of her, mentioned at the time, was granted very graciously last evening. Her voice covers a wide range, from the plush and solid lower tones to the soaring high ones that flirt with the soprano range, her voice rang out marvelously, though in a very few spots she was competing with a surprisingly solid wall of sound from the chamber orchestra. Far from taking away from the performance, it added to the general excitement of the unexpected volume. Daniel Teadt sang the baritone part with a rich, mellow and refined voice, capable of both a commanding sound and the ability to float the softest pianissimo into thin air.

The Resonance Festival Chorus, in Caroline Shaw’s 2016 work To The Hands, scored for voices and strings, was a thing of wonder (Shaw is the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music). Twenty-one people, a well-balanced group of voice types, kept time and tune under Sensi Sellner’s direction, whether they sang a cappella, or with – sometimes almost against – the orchestra. Successful choral singing requires tremendous individual and group effort, and hearing a chorus make a profound impression with such a complex piece, was positively spine-tingling. While Shaw composed the music for the most part to her own text, a line from Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, “Her beacon-hand beckons: give, give to me those yearning to breathe free” became the name of the concert program. Extra kudos to Sensi Sellner for the marvelous display of her abilities as a choir director.

Lyric for Strings, by George Walker (1922-2018), an iconic name among black American composers, got the evening off to a beautiful start. Walker was in his early 20s when the work was first performed at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, in 1946. It was his first effort and a great success, kick-starting a long and respectable career. Originally composed as a “Lament” honoring his recently deceased grandmother, his String Quartet No.1 was later renamed and fully orchestrated and was played last evening with exquisite attention to detail and the mood of the piece. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, ballet music performed in the original version for thirteen instruments, finished the evening, and was a nod back to Resonance Works’ first season, when they first performed it. Copland was another Pulitzer Prize winner on the program, and his work was played excellently.

For full details on the program, visit Resonance Works, and order tickets for tomorrow’s 3 p.m. matinee at the Carnegie Music Hall in Carnegie. The music is well worth it, and the neighborhood is home to a few places for dinner to make a Sunday’s outing complete.

The Production Team for To Breathe Free –

Conductor & Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Associate Producer, Robert Frankenberry; Production Manager, Brennan Sellner; Music Librarian & Personal Manger, Jeffrey Klefstad; Rehearsal Accompanist, Nathália Kato

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