John Covelli & Friends: Fantasia with too little sax

Reviewed by Leo Cotnoir

There is no question that John Covelli is a talented pianist, and it is clear that mid-19th Century Romanticism is his métier. After a somewhat overlong but informative introduction Sunday (Oct. 3) at The Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, Covelli launched into Robert Schumann’s “Fantasia in C Major, Opus 17” with the energy and gusto of a much younger man performing for a jury who would decide his fate. One could not help but hear the connection Covelli feels with the composer through his teacher, who studied with Schumann’s wife, piano virtuosa Clara Schumann. When he ventured into other periods, however, although still technically impressive, Covelli seemed on shakier musical grounds. For my taste his performance of a transcription of Bach’s “Prelude in B minor” had far too much tempo variation as did his reading of Mozart’s “Fantasy in D minor” that at times sounded more like Brahms than Mozart. His performance of Debussy’s “La Cathédrale Engloutie” (“The Sunken Cathedral”) began with the ethereal quality we associate with French Impressionist composers but soon seemed to be grow a bit bombastic. A second piece by Debussy, “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (“What the West Wind Saw”), since it calls for a heavy hand to depict the storm wind, was more successful.

The saxophone performance by April Lucas was, frankly, disappointing. Lucas’ photo in the program showed her holding a tenor saxophone, an instrument rarely heard playing classical music (though one practitioner called it “the golden cello” because the ranges are similar). As a saxophonist myself I was looking forward to that. However, Lucas arrived on stage for her only number with the traditional alto. Although her tone was beautiful, what we sax players call “legit,” and her intonation impeccable, the piece she chose, a fantasy on Puccini’s “Tosca” arranged by composer Ralph Hermann, would pose little technical challenge to a high school student. I would have far rather have heard her play a work or two by Debussy who, although he reputedly hated the instrument, wrote a number of wonderful pieces for alto saxophone. And, it must be said that, as an accompanist, Covelli was a great soloist, frequently overpowering Lucas and occasionally pushing her tempo. But since playing as an accompanist is quite different from being soloist, he surely can be forgiven. All that said, I would love to hear Lucas perform a more interesting program, especially on tenor saxophone.

The concert ended on a high note, if you will, as Covelli returned to the Romantics with three pieces by Liszt: “Concert Etude in D flat: Un Sospiro” (“A Wish”), “Consolation No.3 in D flat” and, last but far from least, the formidable “Mephisto Waltz.” It seemed unnecessary for Covelli to point out how difficult those pieces are, but he executed them brilliantly and left the audience well rewarded for missing out on a beautiful fall afternoon.

Finally a brief word on the venue, The Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, part of the Goodwill Theatre complex. Since I only recently returned to the area after a stint in New England, this was my first visit to the theater. I was very impressed. It is a great space with good acoustics (many thanks for eschewing unneeded amplification). The cabaret seating was relaxed and comfortable — just the thing for a Sunday afternoon concert.

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