By Natalia Polchenko
For The Morning Star
If I were to write a Twitter review of Sunday’s North Okanagan Community Concert Association concert by Benjamin Butterfield and Sarah Hagen, it would go something like this: “Lyrical. Whimsical. Intimate. Multicultural. Excellent!”
Thankfully, I have a little bit more space to share my impressions.
There were a couple of coughs heard before opening act Shae Fraser, a young local harpist, touched the strings of her beautiful instrument. The quiet sound of the harp – gentle and meditative – immediately put the audience into enchanted calm. All the worries and bustle left the Vernon Performing Arts Centre and the music took everyone on a delightful journey.
The headliners, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and pianist Sarah Hagen, both internationally acclaimed musicians, put together a fantastic program that gave the audience a taste of music from many cultures. There were only two people on the large stage, an unamplified voice and piano, but they were able to create the very intimate and warm atmosphere of a cozy house concert.
Traditional Songs from five Canadian Regions, arranged by Canadian composer John Beckwith, reflected the eclectic nature of Canadian culture. Five distinctly different musical traditions wrapped in four different languages (Gaelic, English, French, and Hungarian) created a festive mood, representative of the Canadian cultural mosaic.
Next, Butterfield and Hagen exposed the audience to German lieder. If you ever wondered whether lieder, a traditional setting of German poems to music, could be appreciated fully by non-German speakers, Butterfield and Hagen were a perfect team to make a believer out of you. The singing, playing, and body language of the musicians were so expressive that you could not help but feel the poetry.
The selection of pieces was very interesting. They featured composers from different musical eras — Mozart, Wolf, Reger, Mahler, and Schönberg – yet, the lyricism shared a distinct common thread. The lyrical and precise voice of Butterfield and the emotional but delicate playing of Hagen suited the music perfectly. My personal favourites were the exquisite Mozart’s Abendempfindung (Evening Sensations) and atonal, but oh-so expressive and flowy Waldsonne (Sun in the Forest) by Arnold Schönberg.
After intermission, the multicultural musical kaleidoscope kept turning. Hagen, who was instrumental in helping choose the NOCCA’s new grand piano (pun intended), played a Rachmaninoff Prelude with great sensitivity and heart. Russian romantic music seamlessly transitioned to a cycle of Five Greek Songs by French musical impressionist Maurice Ravel. Ravel wrote this song cycle in a mere 36 hours in French rather than Greek, which made for another charming touch of cultural variety in the program.
Butterfield and Hagen then switched gears from lyrical to whimsical. Two songs by Harry Nilsson, Puppy Song and Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore, and a four-song selection by M. Flanders and D. Swann, showcased the duo’s comedic talent. The images Butterfield painted with words, sounds, whistling, facial expressions and gestures were palpable. The piano was there every step of the way. Even the pauses were expressive.
The audience was thoroughly entertained even when the tenor forgot a few words. However, Butterfield was able to make comedy out of his mistake.
In the finale, we joyfully joined the musicians in one of the Queen’s favourite songs, The Hippopotamus, with “mud, mud, glorious mud…” Joy was a very distinct aftertaste of this delightful matinée and the audience carried it away with them.
The North Okanagan Community Concert Association presents as its last concert of the 2016-17 season “Duo Rendezvous” featuring violinist Jasper Wood and guitarist Daniel Bolshoy, 7:30 pm on March 18th at the Performing Arts Centre. Tickets are available at the Ticket Seller box office, 250-549-7469 or ticketseller.ca.