By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
The South Shore Opera Company found itself in a pickle when at short notice it realized it would be unable to perform the complete opera about the life of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar by composer Steven M. Allen. But SSOCC quickly and deftly knitted together a concert for the same date, made up of African-American singers taking on classic opera arias and duets as well as music by African-American composers.
The result on Sunday afternoon at the South Shore Cultural Center was certainly delightful, and the audience was very warmly appreciative.
The highlight of the concert was the Violin Concerto in A Major, Op. 5, No. 2 by Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The soloist was Rachel Barton-Pine, who the night before had performed the devilishly difficult Violin Concerto No. 1 by Paganini with the Columbus Symphony. If Barton-Pine was weary or fatigued, having just made her way back home to Chicago from Ohio, she showed none of it, offering a fresh and vigorous performance with an ensemble made up of string quartet and double bass, all led by Leslie B. Dunner, music director of the SSOCC.
Barton-Pine played with singing tone and notable sweetness in the highest notes. There were snappy ornaments and scorchingly rapid runs. She had easy assurance and close attention to nuance.
Barton-Pine spoke briefly before the beginning of the concerto, describing the life of Saint-Georges. He was born in Guadeloupe, the son of a planter and an African slave. His father took him to France, where Barton-Pine said that he was taught the “gentlemanly skills” of sword fighting and violin playing. Saint-Georges built a strong reputation, resulting in the appellation “The Black Mozart.” Barton-Pine smiled as she noted that as Saint-Georges came before Mozart, the composer from Salzburg should perhaps be called “The white Saint-Georges.”
She offered an encore, “Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk,” written for violin in 2002 by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, an influential African-American composer named for the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It’s a charming piece — bluesy, jazzy, and inflected with gnarly 20th century dissonance. Barton-Pine filled it with pizazz and sass.
There were several fine singers on the program, leading off with mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter giving a winning performance of “Voi, che sapete” from “The Marriage of Figaro.” She joined forces with baritone Adrian Dunn for “I Want to Die Easy When I Die/Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” one of a large collection of Negro spirituals and hymns that composer Shawn Okpebholo, present at the concert, described as “re-imagined.” It was affecting music, movingly sung.
Soprano Kimberly E. Jones had star power with “Quando m’en vo” from “La bohème. Soprano Joelle Lamarre’s biggest effect came with “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly, where she had huge sound that powered throughout the large Robeson Theater. Tenor Luther Lewis III was suave in “Una Furtiva lagrima” from “The Elixer of Love.”
The most poignant performance came from pianist Paul Hamilton who alternated between mournful and hopeful with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Deep River.”
The least cohesive work on the program was the Overture to “The Impresario” by Mozart. The 12-member ensemble struggled in the beginning to agree on pitch, but eventually settled in and created a bouncy effect with music designed to laugh at the vanity of singers who argue over status and pay. The string members of the ensemble triumphed with “Lyric for Strings,” by George Theophilus Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.
There was an audience of about 50, in a room with chairs set up for eight times that number. It’s too bad that such an entertaining and satisfying afternoon wasn’t experienced by more people.