Performing Arts

Summerfest celebrates 25th anniversary with a pair of stunning performances

Milestone moments are often accompanied by words, whether commencement addresses or father-of-the-bride toasts. The Summerfest chamber music series celebrated its silver anniversary on Saturday with a whole slew of words in a concert in White Hall at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

There were the obligatory speeches before and after the concert to commemorate the individuals involved throughout the last 25 years, of course, but there was also an onslaught of words in performance, found in the poetry of Edith Sitwell as put to music by William Walton. Their 1922 collaboration, “Façade: An Entertainment,” served as the climatic work in the organization’s gala presentation and had as proper a sense of fun as anything.

This was due in large part to actor Robert Gibby Brand’s fantastic performance, together with soprano Lindsey McKee. The Walton followed intermission, and Brand warmed up the audience to the frothy, somewhat unfamiliar work with engaging background information.

Sitwell’s poetry and Walton’s treatment were more concerned with the sound of the syllables and the rhythm of the lines, as opposed to the content, and Brand urged the audience to disregard the libretto printed in the program: “You will want to sit there and follow along. Don’t try!”

So true. The words, relatively abstracted, were tortuously tongue-twisting and delivered at full speed in some instances, the syllables languidly drawn out the next moment, demanding a virtuosic performance.

Walton used many popular and vernacular musical sources to concoct the work with quotations direct and alluded. With evocative colors and combinations gleaned from the ensemble of flute/piccolo (Shannon Finney), clarinet/bass clarinet (Jane Carl), cello (Alexander East), saxophone (Geoffrey Deibel), trumpet (Philip Clark) and percussion (Joseph Petrasek), the intent of the message was clear even if the language was obscured.

It was a delicious piece and would have been the highlight of the series if the performance of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” hadn’t been so breathtaking.

They presented the 13-piece chamber orchestra version, Copland’s original instrumentation for Martha Graham’s ballet, in the suite arrangement. Though the staging of the instruments in the conductor-less ensemble looked awkward (an arc of strings in front, the winds in a row behind, and the piano pushed back against the shell), their balance and connection were intact and their communication fully engaged.

The piano (Melissa Rose) and winds (Finney, Carl and bassoonist Joshua Hood) came through with clarity and energy, leading from behind in well-honed solos and offering perfectly nuanced colorations.

Beautifully crafted, the warm, pianissimo chords at the end of the piece enveloped the listener with the sort of sounds one could just wallow in and wish would last for eternity.

These two dramatic, dynamic pieces more than made up for the lackluster Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 by J.S. Bach. The first two movements were forgettable, but thankfully a sprightly allegro somewhat engaged the imagination. The only founding member still active, violinist Mary Grant, played this movement with a smile on her face.

Flutist Finney gave the strongest performance of the three solo parts (and, as the only person to perform the entire concert of varied and demanding repertoire, a strong performance overall). Cellist Lawrence Figg, though primarily playing basso continuo, also helped move the piece along with a buoyant energy.

Marie Rubis Bauer, on harpsichord, was both soloist and support. An errant page-turner disrupted the flow at the beginning, and while some moments were somewhat clunky, she also displayed the glittering quality of the instrument in runs and extended sequences.

Despite this Bach rendition, Summerfest remained true to the qualities that have brought it so much success these past 25 years, offering performances that challenge the musicians and audience alike with programs of endless variety, presented with appreciation and aplomb.