Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Master Singers of Lexington Celebrates Adam Grossman's 20th Year as Music Director

Adam Grossman has been the conductor and music director of the Master Singers for 20 years, but I can proudly say that I have known Adam for nearly 40 years: we met in Junior High School. I have known violinist Frank Powdermaker, who played the violin solos on the program, for even longer than I have known Adam. When I was in fifth grade and he was in sixth grade, we were stand-partners in the All Newton Elementary School Orchestra.

Adam and Frank were my friends and musical mentors through Junior High School and High School. The last time I heard Frank play or Adam conduct was some time in the later 1970s.

I had high expectations for the May 16th concert. The program had first performances of two pieces written by Adam Grossman, the Bach A minor Violin Concerto, the Bach Motet "Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden," the famous Bach chorale "Jesus bleibet mine Freude" from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, and Bach's Cantata 196 Der Herr denote an us.

Adam Grossman's "Five Choral Songs" set to English texts from the 16th and 17th centuries (one by John Hilton, one by John Fletcher, and two by unknown poets), were written for choir and string quintet (or perhaps string orchestra when performed with a larger choir). They are beautiful and often whimsical pieces that illuminate their texts much the way English Renaissance composers would use what we call "word painting," but the musical treatment is fresh, new, and truly appealing. His Variations on a Theme by Boyce for string orchestra (performed by a string quintet) uses the brief and spare second movement of William Boyce's Third Symphony as a theme. Adam Grossman's program notes describe the piece much better than I can:
My role as a variationist is not to manhandle the tune and make it do my bidding, nor is it to place it in front of the mirror dressed in funny hats. Respecting the theme as a creature of its time and place, the challenge is then to set that aside and see what lies latent within the material, to pull a thread or remove a layer and see what else the theme might become, or in what other direction it might go, while remaining free of gimmickry and making something that is, in the truest sense, entertaining. A more technical concern is ow to work with a tonal theme in contemporary musical language in an honest and meaningful way. Traditional techniques, including canon, fugue and dance forms, all of which Boyce would recognize, help connect with the older music.
Saturday evening was the first time I had heard music written by Adam Grossman since high school counterpoint class with David Levenson. Adam was my musical hero then, and after hearing these two pieces he remains one of my musical heroes.

My first impression of Adam Grossman as a conductor came during a dress rehearsal of a junior high school production of The Marriage of Figaro (at Weeks Junior High we did an opera or operetta during the first semester and a musical during the spring semester). Adam played the part of Dr. Bartolo, and I was one of the flower girls. We had a full orchestra that was enhanced by Adam's high-school-age bassoon-playing brother Jonathan (bassoon is a must for Figaro), and conducted by our music teacher Frank DaDario. I don't know how it happened, but all of a sudden Mr. DaDario's baton was in Adam's hand during an interval when the actors/singers were not at work, and Adam conducted the overture. It was spectacular. It was one of the defining musical moments of my childhood. Up to that point Adam only presented himself as a terrific singer and a really good violinist, but it was clear to everyone that he was a natural conductor. Perhaps he knew it then too. He conducted his way through high school, and has been working with choruses and orchestras ever since.

I have worked with great choral conductors. Some choral conductors handle the demands of working with singers who may or may not be professional singers, but few choral conductors physically understand the needs of string players and singers in combination with organ. Adam Grossman does, and his ability to communicate everything instantly and intuitively made the Bach Motet performance exceptional. Credit should be given to organist Eric Mazonson, who has worked with Adam Grossman and the Master Singers for the past 18 years.

Bach's Cantata 196, an early wedding cantata, features an aria and a duet. The soprano aria is usually done with a solo soprano and more than one violin (the first violin section), but this performance had the soprano section singing the aria in unison, with the violin section obbligato played (beautifully) by Frank Powdermaker. The excellent tenor and bass sections sang the tenor and bass duet to balance the soprano section's singing of the aria.

Frank Powdermaker and I went from being fellow musicians at Newton South High School to being classmates at Juilliard, where he studied with Dorothy DeLay, and played like one of Dorothy DeLay's good students. The adult Frank Powdermaker's playing of the Bach A Minor Violin Concerto Saturday night was extraordinary. His concept of sound, his articulation, and his sense of phrasing reminded me of a cross between David Nadien and Nathan Milstein. Really. And I just saw in the program that he studied with Nadien in New York and worked with Milstein in Switzerland.

Many violinists who play their instruments well, but there are few 21st-century violinists who "walk the walk" with the musical values of the early 20th century. It was one of the most exciting and beautiful performances I have heard of the piece, and the best performance of it I have had the privilege of hearing in real time and in real acoustics. He was accompanied by violinists Adam Grossman and Beth Abbate, violist Dimitar Petrov, cellist Jane Sheena, bass Robb Aistrup, and Mazonson playing harpsichord.

The concert was held in a Unitarian church in Lexington, Massachusetts, located across the street from the famous Minuteman statue. The acoustics in the church were excellent, and the community was extremely comfortable and congenial (our high school principal--now retired--was in the audience).

I always thought that Lexington was far away from Boston, but I was surprised to see how easy it is for people to make their way from Boston to the center of Lexington by way of the commuter train. It doesn't take long at all to drive 13 miles from Newton (or any town with access to Route 128) to Lexington. It's also easy to get there from Cambridge (9.5 miles). My brother, who goes to several concerts a week around the Boston area, took us to the concert.

He enjoys the chance not to have to deal with the frustrations of traffic and parking he encounters when going to concerts in Boston and Cambridge. I found it a great pleasure to hear such excellent music making. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to hear The Master Singers of Lexington again.

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