Artist Recital Series Kicks off with All-Ravel Program

Jarrett Hoffman

Some of Maurice Ravel’s most beautiful pieces of music emanated from Finney Chapel on Tuesday night, as Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces, an all-Ravel chamber music concert featuring nine Oberlin musicians, kicked off the 2013-14 Artist Recital Series. The concert also celebrated the progress of Oberlin Music, Oberlin’s fledgling record label, which recently released a CD of Ravel’s music sharing the program’s name.

The concert began with a stunning performance of Ravel’s famous String Quartet in F Major by the Jupiter String Quartet, the Conservatory’s Quartet-in-Residence. It was clear the group’s members were in close communication with one another as melodies and fast rhythmic frag-ments passed effortlessly between them. The piece’s many transitions were executed skillfully, making the experience feel like the telling of a seamless musical story. Jupiter was excellent in all sections of the piece, from the first movement’s smooth melodies to the second’s jumping pizzicatos to the raucous opening of the fourth and its heart-racing journey to the end. But the most captivating may have been their take on the lethargic and soulful third movement. It evoked within the listener a sense of quiet awe — a reassurance that these emotive progressions have evaded obscurity for a reason.

One of the highlight performers of the evening was soprano Ellie Dehn, OC ’02. A star opera singer, Dehn recently performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, among many other leading opera houses. She was superb in a chamber setting, her voice warmly filling the space in Finney while retain-ing a distinct sense of intimacy. The first selection of the evening to feature her was Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, a piece derived from remnants of piano pieces Ravel wrote to accom-pany Greek folk songs transcribed by Carlos Salzedo for harp and voice. The piece is quirky, its movements short and spare, each one functioning as a miniature vignette with its own individual mood. Dehn and Assistant Professor of Harp Yolanda Kondonassis captured their character im-peccably, in particular the first movement’s urgency and the last movement’s elation.

The Chansons madécasses, performed by a quartet comprised of Dehn, Associate Professor of Flute Alexa Still — fresh from a concerto performance with the Oberlin Orchestra just last week — Jupiter cellist Daniel McDonough and pianist Spencer Myer, OC ’00, were more meaty. The piece’s second movement was especially stunning. It began with shrieks of horror from the absorbing Dehn, then cooled to a chilling tone of traumatic reminiscence as Dehn’s eerily calm voice was paired with beautiful descending flute lines. After the ensemble built the tension very gradually back to a climax, the piece receded and the instruments carried on just past Dehn’s voice, as if determined to keep the melody alive.

Kondonassis starred in Introduction et Allegro, a concerto-like chamber piece featuring the harp. She handled the virtuosic, cascading runs and arpeggios with aplomb. Her cadenza was by turns gentle, thoughtful and bold, and the audience seemed transfixed at the whim of her every touch of the strings. Her choice to play the piece from memory only added to its impressiveness. The rest of the ensemble, which included Still, Associate Professor of Clarinet Richard Hawkins and the Jupiter Quartet, was likewise spectacular, creating fluttering textures and matching each other brilliantly in both pitch and dynamics. Hawkins and Still played together with exceptional chem-istry, enchanting listeners with their opening duet.

Also included were introductions to the pieces provided by Assistant Professor of Musicology James O’Leary and Associate Professor of Music Theory Sigrun Heinzelmann. The professors took turns at the podium giving the audience a sense of background for each half of the concert, with O’Leary focusing on the history of Ravel and Heinzelmann discussing his compositional style. For example, O’Leary detailed how Ravel at first toed the line between two competing schools of thought in French music but later tried to set himself clearly apart. Through short audio clips, Heinzelmann demonstrated Ravel’s development of the main melody throughout his string quartet and his use of exotic-sounding modes in his folk tunes. While informative and ex-cellently done — both professors were clearly passionate and very learned about Ravel — the introductions ran a bit long for a concert that lasted over two hours. They may have been more appropriate as an optional pre-concert lecture.