Concert Reviews

Concert Reviews

... the excellent voices of the choir ...

The Albuquerque Journal (online version only) | April 2, 2017 | Review by D.S. Crafts

Spanish composer Enrique Granados lived through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Today he is primarily known for his piano suite Goyescas and the popular Spanish Dances, favorite works of guitarists. Last week after a week-long series of lectures culminating in a final concert entitled The Granados Project, Maxine Thévenot's[cq] group Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico presented little known works by the composer as well as a revival of his Canto de las estrellas (The Song of the Stars). Much of the concert was strictly instrumental, but three pieces highlighted the excellent voices of the choir.

The lion's share of the music went to pianist Douglas Riva[cq], the leading exponent of the piano music of Granados. The echoey atmosphere of St. John's Cathedral may not be an ideal acoustic environment for a solo piano, but Riva plays with an elegant persuasiveness easily overcoming the drawbacks of the venue.

He began with Capricho Español, a bravura and convivial salon piece typical of the period providing a nice vehicle for him to commence his lengthy section of the program. Cuentos de la juventud (Scenes from Youth) consists of ten short pieces influenced by the works of Robert Schumann of similar names and themes. The work features generally bright harmonic colors with simple yet poignant melodies.

Esceneas romanticas (Romantic scenes) is in two short movements, a Mazurka, highly reminiscent of Chopin, and a tender Epilogo. Violinist Michael Shu[cq] joined Riva for Romanza, another short salon work.

Escenas religiosa (Religious scene) for piano, violin and organ (Edmund Connolly[cq]), the least effective work on the program, proved quiet and austere until several extremely loud organ notes which seemed to come out of nowhere.

Polyphony, accompanied by Connolly, sang the short but tuneful Salve Regina, music hearkening back to the days of the Spanish Renaissance.

Polyphony and Connolly at the piano were joined by members of Las Cantantes and oboist Kevin Vigneau for two songs of New Mexico composer John Donald Robb, the haunting I am Very Old Tonight, and Tears, the text from a Chinese poem.

All hands were on deck for the primary work of the evening Canto de les estrelles. Written in 1911 but never published, it was not revived until 2007 due to various legal difficulties. Described as a poem for piano, organ and voices, Canto begins with a long piano introduction before the women's choir enters with the words, “Oh, infinite vastness and stillness of space!”

The work is steeped in late-Romantic chromaticism, in its last throes before the modernism of the 20th century. Its harmonic progressions are highly reminiscent of Cesar Franck. The text, written in response to the poetry of the German Heinrich Heine, speaks from the point of view of the stars themselves. The line “...wild delirium of love, whose fever we [the stars] can never know!” neatly summarizes this ethereal work.

... superbly focused sound and impeccable intonation ...

The Albuquerque Journal (online version only) | March 27, 2016 | Review by D.S. Crafts

Celebrating masterworks from and inspired by the Renaissance, Maxine Thévenot's Polyphony (Voices of New Mexico) presented a gorgeous tapestry of sound Friday night. The program offered primarily liturgical works ranging from the 16th to the 20th century. Directing a carefully chosen group of singers, Thévenot conducts with a minimum of gesture eliciting a maximum effect—the mark of a master conductor.

The concert both opened and closed with music of the Elizabethan period by the two primary figures of that era, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. Byrd's emotionally stirring Ave verum corpus set the tone of the presentation, featuring the 18-voice ensemble in superbly focused sound and impeccable intonation perfectly situated to the opulent acoustic environment of the Cathedral of St. John.

From the heart of the Italian Renaissance, Palestrina's setting of O Sacrum convivium, became a glowing depiction of angels singing. This pure, triad-rich work was contrasted with a 20th c. setting of the same text by Olivier Messiaen where a major or minor triad is hardly to be found.

Of his Missa Brevis William Walton once said, "Remembering the boredom I suffered as a dear little choirboy, I've made it a point of making it as brevissima as possible." The ensemble traversed the skillful part-writing of the Kyrie and the largely antiphonal sound of the ensuing Sanctus and Benedictus, converging in forte eight-part harmony at "Hosanna in the highest."

The eclectically stylized Miserere mei of James MacMillan offered an extreme contrast to the famous work of the same text by Allegri. For a century Allegri's work was the exclusive property of the Catholic Church used for the highest holidays, until that brat Mozart came along and wrote it down in what today would be considered a severe copyright infringement. The work is known for its half-dozen repetitions of an extremely high and hypnotic phrase written for castrato voice, sung here most effectively by soprano Jennifer Perez.

Carlo Gesualdo originated the concept of extreme chromaticism in music, a development for which the musical public would not be ready for another three centuries. A small contingent of Polyphony brilliantly performed his madrigal Moro, lasso, with its challenging twistings and turnings of unorthodox harmonic progressions.

Anton Bruckner is known as much for his long symphonies as he is for his short choral works. His setting of Locus iste, with its touching and beautiful melody, effectively represented the Romantic period.

Known primarily as one of the outstanding cellists of the 19th century, Pablo Casals also composed music. His O vos omnes is a miniature gem which Polyphony performed with a wide range of carefully controlled dynamics. Two short but entrancing works by the 16th c. Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, including his O vos omnes, completed the printed program. The encore was If ye love me by Thomas Tallis, perhaps the most famous of all choral works from the English Renaissance.

... Polyphony [...] crowning the ensemble.

The Albuquerque Journal | October 21, 2014 | Review by D.S. Crafts

The New Mexico Philharmonic chose to begin its new Classics season with a study of contrasts in similarity. Two Symphonies No. 9 — by Haydn and the Choral Symphony of Beethoven. For Haydn it was an early work (9 of 104 symphonies), while for Beethoven the culmination of a lifetime's work. The two pieces document the span of the symphony from light court entertainment to music that probes the depths of Hegelian philosophy. But Haydn was no mere entertainer and throughout the compass of his symphonies he took the form as far as his world view would allow. It was for the revolutionary tendencies of Beethoven to take it beyond.

With its small ensemble Haydn's symphony seemed almost a desert flower blooming in the spacious landscape of Popejoy Auditorium. To our classically-trained ears its three movements lacks a finale. It ends, rather, with the Menuetto, the usual penultimate movement in later times. Even in this early work, Haydn's genius shows sensitivity to orchestral contrast and instrumental differentiations. The slow movement is the highlight with guest conductor Grant Cooper[cq] giving it an ease and grace almost in intentional sharp contrast to the violence and rough hue of the Beethoven. The Menuetto featured a beautiful solo oboe (Kevin Vigneau) in the trio.

The opening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony is gigantic, the most expansive and powerful introduction to any musical work that had yet been heard. It would take Wagner's cinematic opening to the Ring cycle to surpass it in scope. Yet for the enormity of size the work remains sonata form of the most pure, and ironically it also serves as model for later works that intentionally eschewed the Classical form, redefining the time-scale of music by its very act of compression.

Though it seems bewildering to us today, Beethoven originally conceived the final movement to be instrumental, and even once despaired that the choral finale was wrong and should be replaced. He had intended to use the music which became the finale of his String Quartet in a minor. Yet for whatever the composer's misgivings (and they mustn't be taken too seriously), the choral ending clarifies the meaning of the entire work.

The final movement begins quite literally with a summing up as if to say, as in a TV serial, "Previously in the 9th Symphony. . ." The cellos and basses described vehemently in recitative why none of the music thus far is fully sufficient to the greater purpose, then in octaves stated for the first time what the entire work had been building to, the Ode to Joy theme.

The production featured a strong quartet of singers, especially baritone Edmund Connolly with his stentorian cry of "O Freunde" followed by the initial vocal iteration of the theme. Tenor Robert Allen sang powerfully in the military march segment. The huge chorus, called the New Mexico Philharmonic Collaborative Choir was impeccably prepared by Maxine Thévenot, her own Polyphony chorus crowning the ensemble.

The evening began with Grant Cooper's Akademedie 1824, virtually a pre-concert lecture with orchestral and chorus examples, developed for an audience c. 1824.

... there was a luxuriant sound to the group, solid throughout its range ...

The Albuquerque Journal | March 25, 2012 | By D.S. Crafts

"Immaculate 'Messiah' Perfect for Easter"

Isn't Handel's "Messiah" a Christmas piece? That's been the tradition for a long while, and it seems to suit well the yuletide spirit – at the least the first third of the work. Actually, the premiere performance was on April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland, celebrating the Easter season.

Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico is reviving that original context in its superlative production this weekend at St. John's Cathedral. The group begins the work with Part Two, essentially the Easter story. Music Director Maxine Thévenot has assembled an outstanding group of players and singers alike. Chorus, orchestra and soloists all come together brilliantly, creating an event that will not easily be forgotten. Frankly, I can do no better than to give this performance my highest recommendation.

Thévenot's direction invariably shapes the music with illuminating and often profound effect, sculpting each phrase with intelligence and understanding. There is an immaculate precision to every gesture, never failing to miss Handel's inspired sense of tone painting. With four to seven singers on a part, Polyphony sounds like a much larger ensemble given the rampant enthusiasm of the singers in the resonant acoustic atmosphere of the cathedral.

Beginning with a relaxed tempo in the opening chorus, "Behold the Lamb of God," there was a luxuriant sound to the group, solid throughout its range from stratospheric sopranos to robust basses. One can easily become mesmerized in the opulent sonorities.

The "All we, like sheep" chorus had a joyous bounce to it that I have never before heard either in concert or recording. Not waiting for anyone to remember to stand for the Hallelujah chorus, Thévenot turned to the audience and directed us to rise, commemorating the king standing at attention in awe of the composer – just as it should be. The sound which then majestically filled the cathedral was well worth standing for.

This production is also unusual in that all the vocal soloists are men. The four distinct vocal colors create a marvelous variety of sound. Eric S. Brenner tops the four as male soprano (higher than a countertenor). His aria "How beautiful are the feet" glowed with an angelic reverence. Countertenor Patrick Fennig takes the alto part beginning with a heartfelt intensity of smooth, effortless, bittersweet tones in the aria "He gave his back to the smiters."

Javier Gonzales is clearly a young star on the rise. His bold, arresting tenor gave a palpable drama to "Thou shalt break them," and alternatively there was a shining lyricism to "Behold and see."

Baritone Edmund Connolly, a Londoner recently moved to New Mexico, sings the bass part, impressively accommodating the treacherous passage work in his lower register. "Why do the nations so furiously rage" came forth with brilliant color and tonal character.

The small chamber orchestra, too, played with the same precision and style as the vocalists, with several excellent solos.

By all means make every effort to attend today's repeat performance at 3 p.m. in St. John's Cathedral.


... the area's premiere chamber chorus ...

"Year in Review" | By D.S. Crafts | The Albuquerque Journal | December 25, 2011


A concert recording artist, Thévenot is a musical force to be reckoned with wearing many musical hats locally, as music director for St. John's Cathedral, director of the UNM Women's chorus Las Cantantes, and if that is not enough, founder and director of the chorus Polyphony.

A group made up entirely and proudly of New Mexico singers, Polyphony, Voices of New Mexico, has quickly become the area's premiere chamber chorus in no small part due to Thévenot's direction. As a conductor, Thévenot knows exactly what she wants and precisely how to get it from the performers. And she does it with deceptively minimal effort. The group has just issued their first CD, a selection of season music, Winter: An Evocation.

... exuberance and vivacity of spirit ...

The Albuquerque Journal | December 16, 2011 | Review by D.S. Crafts

Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico has in only a few years established itself the state’s premiere chamber chorus. That is due in no small part to the group’s founder and director Maxine Thévenot, a musical force to be reckoned with. Besides Polyphony, she also directs the UNM women’s chorus Las Cantantes, music at St. John’s Cathedral and is a concert organist with several solo recordings to her credit.

Friday night the women’s contingent of Polyphony performed its seasonal concert concurrent with the release of its first CD, Winter: An Evocation. The center piece of the concert and the CD is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, most usually done with a boys choir, but here, as it was at its premiere in 1942, sung by women’s voices. It would be hard to overpraise this performance. Not only was the sound crisp, clean and with razor-point intonation, but there was an exuberance and vivacity of spirit making each piece glow with colorful sonority. As a conductor, Thévenot knows exactly what she wants and precisely how to get it from the performers. And she does it with deceptively minimal effort.

The group began at the back of St. John’s moving forward singing the Procession, as is traditional. The resonant acoustics of the cathedral are precisely what this work was designed for. Wolcum yole! ended with a beautifully sculpted pianissimo. This Little Babe, sung in close cannon, creates its own “stadium echo”except that the resulting harmonic effect is precisely crafted to result in exquisite music, not sonic noise. Deo Gracias sparkled with electricity until the group retreated to the back singing the final Recession. Harpist Lynn Gorman DeVelder[cq] accompanied the voices in perfect compliment. Her solo Interlude was the sound of delicate gossamer. If heaven is said to be filled with celestial harps, this was Heaven indeed. ndividual voices also came to the front, especially several solos from the gorgeous soprano of Jennifer Perez[cq] including the memorable major-to-minor shifting of Balulalow. Rebecca Hellbom[cq] and Meredith Wilder[cq] blended seemlessly in duets. The CD recording of this work, which I recommend most highly, can be obtained through Polyphony’s website www.polyphonynm.com/ The second half of the program featured lyrical, melodic contemporary works as well as traditional carols. Winter: An Evocation, the title of the CD, is taken from the poem by Walter de la Mare, heard here in an atmospheric setting by Canadian composer Andrew Ager. Its lengthy instrumental prelude provided another welcome opportunity to hear DeVelder’s harp. Salve Regina by Miklos Kocsar of Hungary clearly reflects the exceptionally rich Eastern European choral tradition. Its outburst of the voices in highest register in close harmony is most effective. The gentle I sing of a Maiden by Patrick Hadley led into three traditional carols, The Holly and the Ivy, the Carol of the Bells with its charming transformation of voices into pealing bells, and finally Silent Night in which the audience was encouraged to sing along.







... this outstanding young ensemble ...

The Albuquerque Journal | May 27, 2011 | Review by D.S. Crafts

"Vocal ensemble is pitch-perfect, with panache"

The a cappella vocal group Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico prides itself that all its members are residents of the Land of Enchantment. Indeed, from the concert given on Sunday, hosted by the Placitas Arts Series, there is certainly no need for imported "ringers."

I had not heard the group sing before, but certainly I will make every effort to hear it again. The ensemble boasts a unified blend of voices top to bottom with impeccable intonation.

But what most impressed me was the enthusiasm and vivacity with which the group sang. There is a great sense of camaraderie and surely no shrinking violet voices here. Founded in 2006, Polyphony carries as many as 35 singers. A somewhat smaller group sang at the Las Placitas Presbyterian Church.

Maxine Thévenot directs the chorus. In addition to her many achievements she also is the Organist and Director of Cathedral music at the Cathedral Church of St. John. She elicits huge and brilliant sounds with a minimum of conducting movement – the mark of one who has the utmost confidence in her singers.

The afternoon began with “Kua Rongo,”a traditional Maori (Native New Zealand) welcome song, which the group chanted as it proceeded up the main aisle to the stage. The singers were dressed in black with each individual ornamented in a colorful scarf or tie. From then on the program offered a heavy emphasis on the English/Irish pastoral tradition, more acclaimed for its art than its music, yet there is much of great beauty here as the selection amply demonstrated.

In addition to the more well-known composers such as Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, the secondary figures of this turn-of-the-century school still enjoy an active performance life in the British Isles particularly. Frank Bridge (a teacher of Benjamin Britten) was represented by two disparate songs. The amusing and playful “The Bee”preceded a very touching setting of Shelley’s famous poem “Music, when soft voices die,”using chromaticism to reflect emotional depth.

Edward Elgar’s ardent “As Torrents in Summer”brought a luxurious sonority. Two “bird”entries by C.V. Stanford completed the earlier begun “birds and bees”metaphor with “The Swallow,”and “The Blue Bird,”a very moving and atmospheric song that also featured excellent soprano singing.

A quick trip east opened the second half with Paranjoti’s “Dravidian Dithyramb,”based in Middle Eastern scales. Vaughan Williams’setting of Desdemona’s “Willow Song”from “Othello”fully exploited the rich, sonorous blend of Polyphony as it traversed the flush and characteristic harmonies of the style. Here, quite imaginatively, Vaughan Williams sets in duple time a verse essentially in beats of three.

Two American spirituals completed the afternoon, most impressively, a haunting rendition of “Steal Away.”

By all means expect to hear much more in future from this outstanding young ensemble.

Polyphony will perform Henry Mollicone's Beatitude Mass for the Homeless at 6 p.m. June 18 at the Cathedral Church of St. John. It benefits the Barrett House women's and children's shelter.







The perfect blend of voices ...

Concert Sponsor, Dr. Catherine Harris | May 22, 2011

It was a stunning performance Polyphony gave on Sunday (May 22, 2011) at the Placitas Artists Concert! The perfect blend of voices, perfect pitch and timing, and pure unaccompanied singing is hard to beat. You are the best!

I attended the concert you gave for our church benefit over a year ago and was deeply moved. I love the voice. To me it is the most perfect instrument.

I hope we can have a return performance with the PAS in the future.