Blue Rhapsody

The kickoff to the Austin Chamber Music Center's 12th festival was as much theatre as it was concert

Blue Rhapsody

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, July 11

Witty comedic theatre. Operatic personal ads. A rocking jazz orchestra. Sound like an ad for the opening gala of a chamber music festival? Austin Chamber Music Center Artistic Director Michelle Schumann and her creative colleagues would have it no other way. This past Friday night, as fans packed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to kick off the 12th annual summer festival, the ACMC presented its audience with a program that was as much theatre as it was concert. To end her spirited introductory speech, Schumann thanked the center's donors, both hands in the air, and chanted, "More, more, more!" More of the same? Hardly.

First to the stage was the Cecilia String Quartet for George Gershwin's sweet "Lullaby for String Quartet." The buoyant piece, with its references to the sounds of Tin Pan Alley, came to life in the hands of the quartet and set the informal mood of the evening. Next came the lush settings of three Gershwin standards, "The Man I Love," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and "I Got Rhythm." The quartet engaged in witty banter to introduce each piece, and one lucky audience member (yours truly) was plucked from his seat for a personal onstage serenade. The performance was a light, fun introduction to one of the field's most promising young ensembles, who will tackle meatier material later in the festival.

Schumann then took the stage again, this time as accompanist to vocalist Mela Dailey for the world premiere of Dan Welcher's "Four Personal Ads." Commissioned by Peter Bay, Austin Symphony Orchestra maestro and Dailey's husband, the songs were set to real-life personal ads, reworked as sonnets by poet Beth Gillis. With their titles, "Luscious Latina," "The Queen," "Rubenesque," and "You Smell of Money," as well as Welcher's humorous popular references in the music, the pieces certainly entertained. Layered with Gillis' fine work and Welcher's inimitably rich and lyrical composition style, each song transcended the playful nature of its subject matter. In the finest moments, as when the Luscious Latina confides that, "at 26, I've lost too much," for a short moment the mask is ripped off to show vulnerability at the heart of any search for love.

Dailey, in a fiery red dress, enchanted. Her soaring soprano nailed the nuances of each character as she strode through the audience. Balancing the dual roles of musician and actor is a fine art, one that Dailey handled with great assurance.

As intermission came to a close, the audience entered to a stage jam-packed with Austin's finest musicians, clad in a sea of blue and arranged in clusters around a grand piano. After a wonderful introduction by Austin treasure Margaret Perry, the crowd cheered as Schumann, shimmering in a deep blue dress, took a bow beside the piano before inhabiting her third role of the night.

Rhapsody in Blue is among the most recognizable American masterpieces, a summer standard in the festivals of major orchestras across the U.S. Gershwin's original orchestration, though, called for a smaller setting that more resembles the big band of the jazz era than a chamber orchestra. With as many saxophonists as string players onstage, this was a deft stroke of programming, further showcasing the festival's talent for challenging the traditional stereotypes of chamber music.

Under the direction of Peter Bay, the ensemble roared through the Rhapsody. The original setting added an entirely new sonic paradigm to the piece, putting you right on the streets of Harlem in the Jazz Age. At once unpretentious and fully realized, this performance was pure joy. Schumann's work was fantastic throughout, and in the solo sections, it seemed her fellow musicians were as much part of the adoring crowd as the audience. Though the tempo was rushed at times, the performance's fury only contributed to the ecstatic, intoxicating energy in the theatre.

Once the ovations faded and the crowd began to take stock of the triumphant performance, a similar thread wove its way through conversation. What a shame that a performance so unique, thrilling, and accessible wasn't heard by many more than the several hundred gathered that night. I wasn't alone in remarking that I'd bring people to see it again in a heartbeat. With this spirit in mind, then, I'd like to punt Schumann's words right back to the organization she leads: More, more, more!

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Blue Rhapsody, Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Chamber Music Festival, Michelle Schumann, Peter Bay, Mela Dailey, Dan Welcher, Cecilia String Quartet

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