Con Vivo Shows Us How to Throw a Musical Block Party

Con Vivo Shows Us How to Throw a Musical Block Party
Members of Con vivo! with life at their Carnegie Hall appearance in December 2012

I realized this past weekend that nearly all of the musical groups in Madison—large and small—have one fabulous characteristic in common: From the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera, to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and Pro Arte Quartet, they all consistently present wonderfully stimulating and varied programs.

This happy thought crossed my mind as I awaited the start of the season-closing concert of Con vivo!…music with life, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Saturday night. In a program dubbed “Eastern Block Party,” founders Robert and Kathryn Taylor, along co-founders Janse Vincent and Donald DeBruin and friends new and old, served up three delectable rarities and one work which is a monument of the twentieth century, regardless of genre.

The only regret was that the audience was rather sparse; perhaps now that really warm weather has arrived, it proved tougher competition than the usual logjam of competing musical events. Fortunately, Con vivo usually draws substantial audiences, and certainly will again.

The opening work featured the beautiful church’s magnificent organ, played by the man who is usually on that bench, Donald DeBruin, whose day job is Director of Music Ministries at First Congregational. He led us on a rollicking ride via the Prelude in G Major by Constantin Homilius. Although from a family of German origin, Homilius was born in St. Petersburg and worked there most of his life. The boisterous work gave DeBruin plenty of opportunity to fill the sanctuary with truly “joyful noises.”

Bohuslav Martinu has a solid reputation for both orchestral and chamber works, but Robert Taylor, in his instrumental role as clarinetist, brought to light a work obscure to even the most fervent Martinu fan, the Serenade for Two Clarinets, Violin, Viola and Cello. Partnered by Greg Smith on clarinet, and string players Olga Pomolova, Janse Vincent and Karen Cornelius, the feisty dance rhythms of Martinu’s native Czechoslovakia, and pungent harmonies congenially competed with the composer’s gift for blending the different timbres.

Taylor returned for the “Spiegel im Spiegel” of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, a deceptively simple, hypnotic weaving for clarinet and piano. Dan Lyons provided the ethereal quasi-waltz rhythm in the right hand to Taylor’s slow-moving long tones.

Lyons had a great deal more to do—and succeeded with much aplomb—in the towering Piano Quintet, Op. 57 of Dmitri Shostakovich. With Kathryn Taylor on second violin joining the aforementioned string players, the massive 1940 work emerged with all of its pathos, desolation and, ultimately, carefree joy, intact. Pomolova added some comments as to her personal connection with Shostakovich’s music, as she had grown up in Siberia in the 1980s. That context made her extended lines in the fourth movement all the more poignant.

What the audience may have lacked in numbers, they made up for with enthusiasm, and while we welcome summer and all its attendant joys, we can’t help but look forward to early fall and discover what Con vivo has next in store.