At Seventeen and Prime
Karen Kevra is the founder and artistic director of Capital City Concerts (CCC). Seventeen years ago, she began inviting some of the world’s finest musicians to join her to concertize in central Vermont. Now, CCC is an established nonprofit, bringing a series of world-class performances to the state every year.
I talked to Karen last week as she juggled teaching, practicing, prepping for a board meeting, starting her garden, and having to spend too much time at the Department of Motor Vehicles. She detailed the way she put an upcoming concert together; to me it sounded like equal parts talent, experience, love, and serendipity. Karen was clearly excited about playing again with pianist Jeffrey Chappell, soprano Mary Bonhag, and bassist Evan Premo.
Jeffrey Chappell has performed jazz and classical music in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. He is also a recording artist, an award-winning composer, and on the faculties of Goucher College and The Levine School of Music. He is immensely popular in Vermont. In Karen’s words, “He is beloved at Capital City Concerts and has performed every season from year two on.” She added that he “never fails to bring the house down whether he is performing ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ Barber’s astounding piano sonata or a virtuoso work like the Liszt,” and “I think our audience would stage a mutiny if he missed a season.”
Mary Bonhag and Evan Premo are a married couple and are the founders and artistic directors of Scrag Mountain Music. Both are adept musicians and energetic teaching artists. They brought solid musical careers with them when they moved to Vermont. After praising Scrag Mountain Music’s business model (Come as you are, pay what you can!), Karen noted a “kind of organic, unspoken reciprocity between Scrag Mountain (Music) and Capital City Concerts. The two “seem to find a way of working together every year.”
For the past few years, Karen, Jeffrey, Mary, and Evan have performed together for Capital City Concerts. Karen pointed out she and the other three “have a bond. It’s getting to be a tradition.”
How to Build a Concert
“The genesis of a concert is always a funny thing,” Karen explained. “Sometimes it’s built on repertoire, sometimes on the group of musicians.” In this case, she knew which musicians she wanted to include, and started there. “The timing was such that April worked for everybody.” She also knew Montpelier would be taking part in PoemCity that month. Using poetry as a theme, she supposed the concert would be “easy to put together, especially when a singer is involved.”
This is the point Karen mentioned Capital City Concerts was approaching its twenty-year mark — one of those “things that come up in our life that mark the passage of time.” Those are “the times we begin to kind of think about, ‘how can we do something a bit more lasting?’ Concerts are great, but they’re ephemeral.” She was ready to make CCC’s third commission. The combination of soprano, flute, and bass is unusual. She reflected on Evan’s “Seasonal Song Cycle” for double bass and soprano, a piece that had similar potential to be top- or bottom-heavy, but isn’t. Instead, she finds the work “… poignant and honest and full of variety, color, and emotional depth. This is true for every composition of Evan’s that I have heard and it’s the reason we wanted to commission him to write a piece for CCC.”
A Song Cycle is Born
Karen put out a call to poets; this would be the foundation for the commissioned piece. Nadine Budbill submitted work by her father, David Budbill (June 13, 1940-September 25, 2016). To Karen, choosing that submission “just felt so obvious.” It contained connections to Vermont and the earth. Mary had sung in “A Fleeting Animal” (David Budbill’s “Judevine” set to music by Erik Nielsen). “But Evan is the one who would choose. He chose five (Budbill poems) that are comprising the piece.” The new song cycle, based on those poems, is called “Songs From a Mountain Recluse.” The rest of the program sprang from there.
Karen’s experience shines as she chats about the serendipitous way things fall together, and the flow when “it all kind of happens simultaneously.” She likes to ask her colleagues what they want to play, subscribing to the idea that “musicians tend to like the things they play the best.” She supposed Mary’s choice would be easy as a vocalist. Mary selected Claude Debussy’s “Fêtes galantes” for soprano and piano.
Rounding it Out
Jeffrey chose Franz Liszt’s “Concert Paraphrase of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust.” It’s a showstopper, one that Jeffrey described as, “The biggest waltz that ever came down the pike.” Karen asked Jeffrey to also include Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith Variations for Solo Piano.” Why? “Just because I adore that piece. It’s a perfect set of variations.”
Karen called Frank Martin’s “Ballade for Flute and Piano” the most obtusely connected to the program. “When you hear the title … it’s not what you would automatically think … It’s a ballad, but that term is used rather freely. (It’s) edgy, foreboding, exciting, and spans the entire range of the flute. It demands a huge dynamic range from the softest whisper to trombone-like bellowing low notes and searing stratospheric high notes.” After a pause: “Really an extraordinary piece.”
Evan chose Fauré’s “Élégie for Bass and Piano,” often heard performed by solo cello. Karen’s reason to looking forward to it: “Evan gets around so nimbly on the bass.”
The concert is April 22, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. You can buy tickets here.
— photo top left by Caleb Kenna