A good-sized crowd turned out Friday to hear Roland Martin's faculty recital in Slee Hall on UB's North Campus. And with good reason.
Martin presented a half-dozen organ works -- two of them thunderous -- and after intermission came the premier of his new song cycle, "A Rose Beside the Water." Based on eight poems by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, it was commissioned by Buffalo painter Catherine Parker.
Parker painted pictures inspired by the same vivid, sensual poems, and they were on display for the performance of the cycle. In jewel tones, they pictured water, waves and red roses. Parker's work is different from the work of her father, Charles Burchfield, but her creations have something of the same intensity.
It was an imperfect musical performance we heard on Friday, because crisis struck: Soprano Cristen Gregory was ill, and could manage only one song. That left tenor Jeffrey Porter to go it alone with the viola and piano accompaniment. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musician Janz Castelo played viola, and Martin played the piano.
As Martin explained, many of the songs were scored for vocal duet. Porter had to carry these on his own. One song had to be omitted.
Still, there was a lot to absorb and savor.
Martin's music is unashamedly, refreshingly romantic. Porter gave the songs a fine shape and motion. The viola's melodies were stark in places but lyrical. Castelo displayed an impressive range of colors and textures.
The viola and piano were a kind of duet on their own. Martin's romantic style lent itself beautifully to the poems' content. Roses, night and water are themes that show up in Richard Strauss' songs -- and Martin's music had, at times, a Strauss-like sensuality. In "Ocean," the pianist suggested cascading waves. In "Drunk With Pines," the piano lines were glassy and smooth, like the surface of water.
The concluding duet -- soprano Gregory acquitted herself well -- had a moving introduction with solo viola and ended with Gregory and Porter echoing each other. It was a haunting ending to an evocative and interesting song cycle.
Mezzo soprano Denise Blackmore gave warmth and feeling to two moving songs Martin wrote to the poetry of Ursula Vaughan Williams, the wife of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The organ portion of the concert was tremendously engrossing. Martin is not only a master organist but a master showman. He gave us the Adagio from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony -- beautiful. Also his own arrangement of the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" -- a gem, though on organ, it began with a mood that was oddly ominous.
Two 18th century French pieces with sounds of thunder and cannon were showstoppers. Both noises were pretty similar -- an outrageous growling, roaring blast that, coming from the mighty Fisk, shook the hall.
"I heard him practicing that earlier today," the UB concert manager confided. "I didn't know what in the world was going on." The crowd shared his wonder -- and delight.
"A Rose Beside the Water" will be performed again Oct. 22 at the Buffalo Chamber Players' concert at Buffalo Seminary. By then Gregory should be again in good voice.
Roland E. Martin
Friday night in Slee Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus, Amherst.