Turning Point Ensemble

Jean Coulthard and Her World

Date and Venue Sunday, 10 February 2008 @ 8pm | The Vancouver Playhouse

Coulthard Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello (1989) Mahler Songs of a Wayfarer Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune Coulthard Shelley Portrait (1987)

Conductor Owen Underhill Guest Artist Sarah Fryer, Mezzo soprano

Reviewer J H Stape

Turning Point Ensemble's concert celebrating the centenary of Vancouver composer Jean Coulthard was a very classy affair: flowers graced the stage; wine, chocolates, and canapés flowed during a post-concert reception; Sarah Fryer's exquisite mezzo voice rose up in song; and the elaborate programme carried a message from the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

No fewer than two City Councilors pointed out that the concert was a civic celebration supported by the City's arts fund. And well it should have been, for Jean Coulthard (1908-2000), clearly an artist committed to her inner voice, made a special contribution to her city's musical scene, championing Debussy and Ravel when they were considered overly demanding by the public, and not least, of course, in writing some 300 works herself.

It's a pity that only about a 125 joined in the festivities, while no doubt nearby yet another hockey game was packed out, but then Aristotle, who has never done very well in bookshops, has nonetheless been in them for some two millennia.

The concept of this concert -- to suggest Coulthard's influences along with her own music -- worked only in part and proved rather academic, the Mahler and Debussy being slimmed down for a small orchestra. Although the stripping in the first instance was by no less than Arnold Schoenberg (1919) -- the reduction of Debussy was by Benno Sachs (1921) -- one missed the lush velvety quality and the slightly overblown orchestration, the very point in both compositions and of their newness in their time.

Sarah Fryer, however, triumphed over "Mahler Lite," her German diction flawless and her communication of the texts, her colouring of the songs, and her interpretive grasp extraordinarily riveting. The emotional directness and intimacy of the texts came across unerringly.

Coulthard's own music was, however, the evening's centrepiece. Both pieces showcased were written when the artist was in her 80s, and the signs of a mature idiom and confidence were everywhere present.

The 1989 Duo Sonata got a highly appealing, stylish and even clearly loving reading, violinist Marc Destrubé and cellist Peggy Lee offering a committed and insightful interpretation strong on detail.

The first movement Dramatic allegro con brio was a confection of treats, highly inventive and at moments playful. The second movement "Interlude" was a more typical, if brief, andante , poetic and moody, while the finale, another allegro, offered a very urban and urbane palette overflowing with ideas and at times urchin-like in its shifting moods.

The Shelley Portrait (1987), a setting of six of Shelley's poems with a poem by Thomas Hardy about Shelley's Skylark, was written as a musical offering to Concordia University in gratitude for the university's conferral of an honorary doctorate on the composer. And what an exquisite present this is, with the text and music melding perfectly, and Coulthard adapting the Romantic periods words and sentiments to a wholly modern idiom.

The range on display was daunting as Impressionism, though a keynote here as the skylark twittered, never overwhelmed. "To Music" was intimate and personal, while "Wake Not the Serpent" by contrast was operatic and even flashy.

"To a Skylark" caught the original's rapture and awe before inspiration, and the setting of the Hardy poem was beautifully crafted. A meditation about poetry by a poet this became in Coulthard's hands as song about singing, a moving setting of a moving poem. Fryer was exquisite throughout and ably supported by piano, woodwinds, and cello. What a happy birthday, indeed!

© 2008 J H Stape