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MUSIC REVIEW : SINGER GIVES ORCHESTRA NEEDED LIFT

Musically, the concert Sunday afternoon by the Orange County Chamber Orchestra resembled a before-and-after advertisement; the presence of mezzo-soprano Kimball Wheeler in the second half seemed to greatly inspire the orchestra after a rocky start.

The ensemble that began the concert sounded like nothing more than a reasonably competent regional band. Music director Micah Levy’s generic Baroque interpretation of a concerto grosso by Corelli had nothing to distinguish it but inconsistency, and his harried, exaggerated approach to Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement of the Nocturne from Borodin’s Second String Quartet exposed only misintonation.

Then Wheeler entered the program in the Orange Campus Theater of Loyola Marymount University, and Levy and company regrouped behind her. She not only contributed powerfully with her voice, but also seemed to effect a remarkable change in the poise and purpose of conductor and players.

Wheeler’s voice has the clarion quality of the best countertenors. “Ombra mai fu” is surely one of Handel’s best-known, most abused tunes, and even the great dignity of Wheeler’s account did not make it much more than a congenial warm-up.

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Mozart’s “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505, offered much greater dramatic opportunity. Wheeler does not vary her vocal production much, save for an affective half-voice on soft, mid-range notes, but she uses articulation and phrasing to color her texts.

That was clearly evident in Gerald Finzi’s Shakespearean song cycle, “Let Us Garlands Bring.” Wheeler’s voice is better suited to the more somber, stately songs, but through careful inflection and sheer nimbleness she made the rollicking ones appropriately flirtatious or bucolic.

Levy and his orchestra accompanied Wheeler neatly enough, although she had to fight to project lines in her lower range. Delores Stevens played the important piano solos in “Ch’io mi scordi di te” with pertinent character.


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