A musical holiday trio

Three holiday concerts: Lyric Fest, Tempesta di Mare, and Dolce Suono

4 minute read
One of composer Foumai's sources: Arman Manookian's 1928 mural "Hawaiian Boy and Girl." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
One of composer Foumai's sources: Arman Manookian's 1928 mural "Hawaiian Boy and Girl." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

In one six-day period, Lyric Fest, Tempesta di Mare, and Dolce Suono presented concerts that eased me into the spirit of our annual December bash. They all generated the right mix of warmth and good cheer, even when they weren’t presenting music directly related to any of our end-of-the-year holidays.

Lyric Fest

Lyric Fest’s program inaugurated a new format, a happy hour followed by a mini concert. The event began at 5:30 in the attractive new reception room the Academy of Vocal Arts added when it expanded into two adjoining brownstones. The audience then adjourned to AVA’s theater for the first full performance of Letters to Santa, 14 letters children wrote to Santa, collected and set to music by composer Logan Skelton.

Lyric Fest included four of the letters in a concert it presented earlier this year. The entire cycle is a compact little musical, with moods that range from comic desires to the innocent nobility of an eight-year-old girl requesting presents for her younger siblings. The songs were sung by three young vocalists with impressive opera credits: tenor Keith Phares, soprano Sara Duchovnay, and mezzo Katherine Pracht. They all applied their operatic talent for musical storytelling and turned every song into a vignette. Skelton’s libretto included three comments on childhood by famous people and the trio brought the cycle to a grand finish when they joined in his setting of Dostoevsky’s “The soul is healed by being with children.”

Tempesta di Mare

Tempesta di Mare’s concert was primarily about winter, its centerpiece Vivaldi’s winter concerto from The Four Seasons. But you can’t concertize about winter without references to burning logs and holiday festivities. The concert opened with Corelli’s Christmas concerto and finished with a Baroque “symphony” that was essentially a lively suite of French noëls, brightened by two recorders playing over strings, harpsichord, and guitar.

The Corelli received a performance that was a prime example of the irreplaceable virtues of live concerts. You could hear the distinctive sound of every instrument playing its own line, in a way you could never hear it on a recording.

The concertos in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons all follow the texts of sonnets published with the music. Giovanni Antonio Guido did the same thing in his concertos on the seasons and may have preceded Vivaldi. Guido’s winter concerto includes sound effects like howling winds and limping elders, but it has a happy ending. The holidays enter with a warrior’s march and dispel the unpleasantness.

Concertmaster Emlyn Ngai earned a big ovation for his dazzling displays in the solo role of the Vivaldi. He did it, as always, with a cool focus on his work, sans extraneous mugging or prancing; his hands said everything.

Dolce Suono

The Dolce Suono concert explored Spanish and Latin American music but with holiday touches. The finale was a "Granada" for flute, guitar, cello, and piano that was just as rousing as the big noël that ended Tempesta’s program. Company artistic director Mimi Stillman even invited the audience to join in on “Besame Mucho” in the same way audiences sing carols at Christmas concerts.

The show stealer was the whirlwind of sound Charles Abramovic produced playing a movement of a piano sonata by Alberto Ginastera. That came at the end of a group of three pieces that included a moving tribute to a sculptor who continued working after losing his right hand. Composer Manuel Ponce celebrated the sculptor’s resolution with a quietly forceful piece played by the pianist’s left hand.

Like Dolce Suono’s other Spanish-oriented concerts, this program included samples of Latin American popular music. Mimi Stillman and her partners kept the lighter pieces interesting with short arrangements that varied the orchestration and sometimes added extra flourishes. The final “Grenada” was cheerfully hyper-dramatic and ended while I still wanted to hear more.

L to r: Dolce Suono with composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, pianist Charles Abramovic, flutist Mimi Stillman, and cellist Nathan Vickery. (Photo by Ronni Gordon)
L to r: Dolce Suono with composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, pianist Charles Abramovic, flutist Mimi Stillman, and cellist Nathan Vickery. (Photo by Ronni Gordon)

The two novelties on the program were a premiere by a rising young composer, Michael-Thomas Foumai, and a trio for flute, guitar, and cello by Vivian Fine, a composer whose career spanned most of the 20th century.

Fine enjoyed a prolific, successful career lasting from 1929 until her death in a car accident in 2002. Dolce Suono played three selections from a group of pieces inspired by Spanish themes. They included a lament for the fall of a city during the Spanish Civil War; a charming dialogue between a senorita (Mimi Stillman’s flute) and a frog (Gideon Whitehead’s guitar); and a “Death’s Jig” that reflected the Spanish sense that death is a constant presence. If Fine’s other music is this good, she should be better known.

Foumai’s premiere was another piece founded on stories and images. A Hawaii-born composer, his Manookian Murals is a trio for flute, cello, and piano that presents musical depictions of four paintings by Hawaiian artist Arman Manookian. The relationship between paintings and music is consistently clear and unambiguous. You can feel the wind in the section called “Red Sails” and “Hawaiian Boy and Girl” is a romantic Garden of Eden idyll.

The composer compared his finale to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee but The Flight of the Flamingo was more erratic than the compulsive, straight-line charge of the bumblebee. And the flamingo obviously had more fun.

What, When, Where

Lyric Fest, Letters to Santa. Skelton, Letters to Santa. Keith Phares, tenor. Sara Duchovnay, soprano. Katherine Pracht, mezzo-soprano. Laura Ward, piano. Suzanne DuPlantis, Laura Ward artistic directors. December 6, 2016 at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. (215) 438-1702 or

Tempesta di Mare, A Cozy Noel. Corelli, Concerto grosso in G minor “Fatto per la Notte di Natale.” Simpson, Winter. Guido, Concerto in B flat, “Winter.” Vivaldi, Violin concerto in F minor, “Winter.” Janitsch, Sonata in E flat “con stilo di recitativo.” Corrette, Noel Symphonie 4 in D Minor. Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players. Gwyn Roberts, Richard Stone, directors. Emlyn Ngai, Concertmaster. Saturday, December 10, 2016 at the Arch Street Meeting House, 320 Arch Street, Philadelphia. (215) 755-8776 or

Dolce Suono, The Americas Project, Música en tus Manos. Lecuona, "Amapola." Fine, "Canciones y Danzas." Cervantes, "Adiòs a Cuba." Ponce, "Malgré tout." Ginastera, Ruvido ed ostinato from Piano Sonata No. 1. Piazzolla, Histoire du Tango. Foumai, Manookian Murals for Flute, Cello, and Piano. Velasquez, "Besame Mucho." Lara, "Granada." Mimi Stillman, flute. Nathan Vickery, cello. Charles Abramovic, piano. Gideon Whitehead, guitar. Mimi Stillman, Artistic Director. December 11, 2016 at the Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust Street, Philadelphia. (267) 252-1803 or

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