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Concert Review: Rochester Chamber Orchestra's "Jan DeGaetani: A Musical Legacy"

A new conductor and a revered singer


The mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, who taught at the Eastman School of Music and lived in Rochester for many years, died a quarter-century ago. Her influence as a teacher, a proponent of new music, and simply as a great vocal artist, is still strongly felt -- or should be. The Rochester Chamber Orchestra's first concert of the 2014-15 season was a tribute to this great artist.

DeGaetani was an amazingly versatile singer: her recordings include everything from German medieval songs to Cole Porter and numerous 1970's and 1980's premieres, with just about everything in between. In paying tribute to her, there is a lot to choose from. The concert, on Sunday, October 12, at Hochstein Performance Hall, also marked the debut of the RCO's new artistic director, Gerard Floriano. It was a strong debut: he programmed this concert imaginatively, and directed it solidly.

The program began with Haydn's Symphony No. 89, apparently one of DeGaetani's favorites -- an interesting choice, as it is almost never performed. In history, the piece was stuck between its brilliant predecessors, the "Paris" Symphonies, and the even more brilliant "London" symphonies that followed. But, being Haydn, No. 89 is a good-humored, superlatively crafted work well-worth hearing, particularly in a performance as spirited and elegant as it received from the RCO. Floriano gave a nice lift to the dance rhythms, and the small ensemble ensured that every musical detail sounded clearly.

DeGaetani's championing of women composers led to the choice of two very different pieces from the past. Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) is probably best-known for her work as a collector of American folk songs and as Pete Seeger's stepmother. In the 1920's and 1930's she was one of our leading "modernist" composers, as well as a leading woman composer; from the perspective of 2014, I would say she was a leading American composer, period. Her music is atonal, but often has a yearning, tragic quality that reminds me of Alban Berg's work. It is also rigorously constructed and compact: a two-minute song by Ruth Crawford Seeger is as full of varied emotion as an opera, as this work proved.

DeGaetani recorded Crawford Seeger's "Three Songs to Texts by Carl Sandburg" on her "Songs of America" album, and Nancy Allen Lundy sang them terrifically on Sunday. Her light, clear soprano is quite unlike DeGaetani's voice in timbre, but Lundy's ability to communicate emotion in music -- even somewhat thorny music -- is very much like DeGaetani. Lundy negotiated Crawford Seeger's constantly shifting moods and pitches with skill and a sense of commitment (another quality Jan DeGaetani had in spades). The original piano accompaniments were orchestrated with exquisite tact for strings and harp by Chris A. Trotman. Possibly they soften Crawford Seeger's edge a bit, but they also bring out the delicacy and elusive melodic qualities of her music.

The composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) was once invariably referred to as "Mrs. H.H.A. Beach." But in the last few decades, she has come into her own as one of the best American Romantic composers; the RPO played her impressive "Gaelic" Symphony a couple of years ago. Beach's 1893 "Romance" for violin is one of her smaller-scaled works; while her symphony is reminiscent of Brahms or Dvorak, this is a beautiful little sugarplum in the manner of Fritz Kreisler. Its first audience demanded an immediate encore, and I'm not surprised. RCO concertmaster David Brickman's playing was irresistibly sweet and refined, helped by another skillful orchestration by Trotman.

Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'Eté" appeared on DeGaetani's last CD, in a chamber reduction by her husband, Philip West. To conclude this concert, Lundy sang four of the six songs in this cycle, one of the most beautiful works in the vocal repertoire (and, I think, the very first orchestral songs, decades before Mahler). I'm not sure that summer nights are ever mentioned in these songs, but that title suits their relaxed, perfumed, romantic atmosphere perfectly.

A heavier voice seems better suited to these songs, which often lie rather low; in fact, Berlioz originally wrote them for several different singers. But Lundy provided some beautiful singing and often projected the text in the large Hochstein Performance Hall. (She also used a score, which I found distracting -- and she honestly didn't seem to need it.) Floriano proved that he's a very experienced and sensitive conductor with vocalists, providing just the right orchestral balance to set off Lundy's voice.

Besides the performances, the evening also included excerpts from DeGaetani's famous recordings of songs by Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Stephen Foster, and a live tape of a song from Paul Fetler's "The Garden of Love," which she premiered with the RCO in 1985. These songs varied in sound quality, and sitting at a concert audience listening to a recording was a bit awkward. But, I suppose, the opportunity to listen to Jan DeGaetani sing even a small corner of her vast repertoire is a welcome one.