Syrinx Concerts Toronto, February 1, with Mealnie Conly, (sopano) Emily Rho, (pian0), and Peter Stoll (clarinet) at Helicon Hall.
Presumably, the theme for the Feb 1 Syrinx Chamber Music Concert, “Passion, Possibility, and Pleasure” was chosen to dispel some of the deep winter gloom with which music patrons struggle, including the inertia that makes coming to the concert hall a challenge in itself. Passion is warm, pleasure is consoling and both can make these dark days seem endurable, and the possibility of a better season believable. Gathering in the intimate space of Helicon Hall can further create the sense of a community of like-minded music lovers huddling together to warm their spirits by listening to beautiful expressions of anticipation of brighter and happier days.
The concert turned out to offer something more complex and challenging. Emphasizing the ambiguous concept of “possibility”, the three fine performers, sopano Mealnie Conly, pianist Emily Rho, and clarinetist Peter Stoll, performed songs about spiritual challenge, human constraint, emotional endurance and religious yearning.
This included Purcell’s “from Rosy Bowers”, a maid’s lament over an illusive object of desire, as well as Alexander Brott’s cycle of Victorian poems, which touched on themes such as shame, grief and marital estrangement. Even the more light-hearted ending to the first half, a musical setting of a Dorothy Parker monologue called The Waltz, by Lee Hoiby, evokes the excruciating awkwardness, psychological falseness and physical pain of the formal dances of yesteryear.
The gracious Melanie Conly pointed out the subtle undertones of possibility in all these pieces. She displayed an impressive emotional range that was equal to her vocal range, drawing full dramatic value from each of these pieces. Emily Rho and Peter Stoll provided most of the passion in the program, with their energetic rendition of Robert Schumann’s Opus 73, Three Fantasy Pieces, described as “love letters from Robert to Clara”, by Rho. Stoll’s dance-like style of playing seemed particularly ardent. Rho’s collaborative restraint was admirable, giving Stoll the accompaniment that allowed him to truly shine.
Samuel Barber’s cycle of Hermit Songs, which opened the second half of the concert, describe the possibility of endurance and redemption through faith and Christian devotion. Deeply reflective, they culminate in the affirmation of death as a delivery. After such solemnity, the passage of bird song that leavens the despairing musings of the Shepherd in Schubert’s final composition, The Shepherd on the Rock, was particularly pleasing. Stoll’s bobbing, knee-bending and dips gave him a Pan-like bounce.
While the musicians are to be commended for avoiding the saccharine route around the darkness that befalls us, seasonally and existentially, and challenging the audience to grapple with the pain, doubt and thwarted desires that beset us when the light recedes, the emphasis was skewed towards the skull without much attention to the flesh. Adding the encore of Somewhere Over the Rainbow seemed almost therapeutic, as if to restore enough energy to the audience to face the snow that was falling as the concert ended.