Four classically trained musicians of diverse backgrounds took listeners on a whirlwind trip around the world at an August 11 chamber concert inside the Woodlands Mansion in West Philadelphia. The Woodlands is one of the most revered historic cemeteries on the East Coast, renowned for its well-manicured grounds and romantic statuary, and as the final resting place of luminaries such as artist Thomas Eakins.
Composed of four spectacularly talented women, the EVER Ensemble offered a program embracing a world of musical genres, including classical, hip-hop, Turkish, spiritual, and jazz.
Embracing the audience
The ebullient leader of the group, Valerie Gay, is a percussionist and lead singer who has performed opera roles by Mozart and Donizetti; she’s also the executive director of Philly’s Art Sanctuary. During a Sunday-afternoon performance, her powerful soprano voice and radiant enthusiasm overflowed the small standing-room-only parlor.
Other members of the group are composer Ruth Naomi Floyd, whose mastery of the concert flute is equaled only by the beauty and suppleness of her expressive mezzo voice. Harpist Candace Lark shone in a performance of the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (Villa-Lobos), while cellist Ezgi Yargici brought warmth and interpretive subtlety to performances of works in a variety of styles, at one point joined by her parents in her arrangement of the Turkish art song “Kimseye Etmem Sikayet” for lute, voice, and cello.
The group expressed a fresh, free spirit and an embracing relationship with the audience, who responded warmly to the 10 short works—some familiar, some new—on the hourlong program.
Classics, spirituals, pop, and originals
The ensemble was especially affecting in the performance of the song “Villanelle,” by the Belgian singer and composer Eva Dell'Acqua (1856-1930). If the tune sounded familiar to older listeners, it may have been because it was included in the soundtrack of the 1942 film I Married an Angel. Some musical repartee between Gay and flutist Floyd reminded me of the back-and-forth conversation between a performer on the sitar or sarod and the tabla (drums) in classical Indian ragas. Gay displayed her amazing vocal range (beyond three octaves) in a relaxed and cheerful style.
Gay was equally at home in the African American spiritual tradition, first providing perceptive commentary and then a compelling a cappella performance of “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” A complete departure from this profound presentation followed in a delightful rendition of the Beatles' “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” performed with a catchy island beat.
Particularly impressive was the original composition “Press On,” composed by Floyd as part of the Frederick Douglass Jazz Works, in which the composer has set selected writings by the great reformer to music. This excerpt from Floyd’s website for the larger work captures the composer’s beautiful voice at its deepest expression. Combining lyricism with insight and yearning, this selection truly made me want to hear more of Floyd’s work. She is a composer to watch.
Hoping for more
The program continued with a series of style variations, including rap, on the theme of “Plaisir d’amour,” then Floyd’s “Passage to the Light,” and Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The program ended with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I may be the only person on earth underwhelmed by this song, which sounds for all the world to me like “I Got You Babe,” but the ensemble performed it with heartfelt fervor, deliciously capping off the kind of eclectic salon-chamber concert we can only hope will become more common in the years ahead.
The next concert at the Woodlands will be the Pyxis Trio at 3pm on Sunday, September 15, 2019.
What, When, Where
A mixed chamber-music program from the EVER Ensemble. Valerie Gay, percussion and voice; Ruth Naomi Floyd, flute and voice; Candace Lark, harp; Ezgi Yargici, cello. August 11, 2019 at the Mansion at the Woodlands, 4000 Woodland Avenue, Philadelphia. everensemble.com.