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Hymn and Hers

[whitespace] Hillhouse and Gandolfi deliver Ives, Cowell and Harrison songs

By Philip Collins

W E SAT in our seats like good Protestants awaiting the processional hymn; and Sister Hillhouse did delivereth: four of them, as straight and unadulterated as Kentucky corn mash. "Rock of Ages," "In the Garden," "Nearer My God to Thee" and "The Old Rugged Cross" laid the foundation for a fascinating recital called The Hymn Connection, presented by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse and pianist Josephine Gandolfi at the Palo Alto Cultural Center Saturday.

Hymn and song settings by Americans Charles Ives (1874-1954), Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and Lou Harrison (1917-, of Aptos and still with us) made a more lively affair than the program's title might have led one to suspect.

Ives' rampaging temperament and colliding pitches would likely still clear the pews of most denominations, and while Cowell's settings were ravishing, he was prone to far-reaching harmonies and occasional acts of bombast that are far from customary to this day. In Harrison's "Sanctus" (his only work featured), the power of faith was born out with soaring melodies (which Hillhouse piped out as mightily as trumpets) and a stampeding piano part that wouldn't let your feet stay still; it kept Gandolfi's fingers busy too.

The Hymn Connection was the second concert of Hillhouse and Gandolfi's three-part set on the vocal music of the three composers, and since I missed the first, The Path of Beauty, I have no comparative observations to offer--only that Saturday's concert has spurred me to mark my calendar for the final installment, American Transcendence, on April 25.

Hillhouse and Gandolfi assembled the evening with fastidious detail and luxuriating artistry. The performance standards throughout were quite faultless, but that was only part of the bargain. The song sets were arranged in a manner that circumvented the piecemeal pacing of most song recitals, not only through careful juxtapositions of contrasting and connecting works but also by the inclusion of extended works--Cowell's "A Song of Courage," Ives' "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" and Harrison's "Sanctus"--at key points. Members of the Peninsula Women's Chorus, planted amid the audience, livened things with a surprise cameo during Ives' "The Collection," intoning a congregation's responses.

Although many of Ives' songs have become staples of the repertoire, most of the program featured music that is almost never performed. Of the 10 Cowell songs presented, only "Thou Art the Tree of Life" and "Manaunan's Birthing" are published. The others Hillhouse copied from microfilm at the Library of Congress, where numerous unpublished songs of his languish--a puzzling thing, for the songs performed Saturday were gorgeous, and tamer ballads like "I Dreamed I Lay" would melt the average casual listener in his tracks.

A vigorous spontaneity ran through the evening. The shared qualities of all three composers' vocal works--unpretentious musicality, roving inventiveness and an appetite for mixing musical apples and oranges--resonated in Hillhouse's and Gandolfi's interpretations.

T HEIR RAPPORT is second nature and dually enlightened. Hillhouse's range encompassed far-fetched reaches, from the deep chesty tessitura of Cowell's "Song of Silence" right up to the celestial accent of "General Booth." Hillhouse's operatic belt added cathedral richness.

All the while, Gandolfi played with the cool aplomb and moving expressivity Bay Area audiences have come to expect from this superb keyboardist. Gandolfi has the gift of transparency; she can disappear to the point that there is only the music and you. The vast difficulties swamping the program's agenda also disappeared. Concerts such as this are too infrequent, if only because they are demanding to pull off--artistry and scholarship working hand in hand, and respectfully; the way it should be.

A number of Ives' jewels linger in the memory: his surreal setting of John Bowring's "Watchman," "At the River" and, of course, "Serenity." Of the Cowell, all were new-seeming and beguilingly melodic. "Psalm VIII" had amazing breadth, and the simple pleasures of his "Allegro and Burden" made refreshing use of commonplace harmonies. Harrison's "Sanctus," as mentioned, is a beaming treatment of Catholic liturgy, handled with wholly uncharacteristic materials.

The Hymn Connection succeeded in revealing important links in our musical heritage. The hymn served as a primary building block that inspired and informed Ives' and Cowell's unique types of musical expression. With hymns as their departure point, they were able to couple their lust for experimentation with deep spiritual feelings. In musical terms, the simple, rigid framework of the hymn provided a resilient medium for them to try out new techniques. Like the trampoline, the hymn genre afforded Ives and Cowell means to reach places to which others aspired.

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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