The hot new music series, “Gabriela Montero at Prager,” hit its highest note so far, literally, at the resplendently restored former sanctuary known as the Ebenezer Theater Saturday night, thanks largely to guest artists soprano Larisa Martinez and her super-star husband, violinist Joshua Bell.
Pianist Montero, who headlined the September 17 series opener with just her two hands, played a supporting role on this night, skillfully accompanying the couple on nearly all the program’s ten primarily short pieces. The Pragers in the title of the series are, of course, Joanne and Paul Prager and the Prager Family Center for the Arts. Montero is the artist-in-residence of the center, of which the Ebenezer Theater is its crown jewel.
Saturday’s concert opened with a 10-minute Bell and Martinez duet, one of the three longer pieces on the program. From Mendelssohn’s concert aria for soprano and orchestra, or in this case, violin, they performed “Ah, ritorna eta dell-oro.” (return to a valley of gold). To unobtrusive piano backing, violin and vocals trade places intermittently in a call-and-response duel before introducing an assertive change of pace as Bell propels his bow with the thrust of a fencing foil to Martinez’s dramatically ascending intensity.
Bell left the stage for the next piece, described by his wife as Schubert’s “love letter to music.” With a lilting voice and light piano touch, Martinez and Montero delivered a brief and soothingly sweet respite before diving into the “Je suis” encore from Massenet’s “Manon.” Moving her sheet-music stand aside, Martinez sang in character, ranging from flirtatious girl to sultry woman, curling up and down the scale in rehearsed improvisation even as she laughed on key. Next, French composer Delibes’ “Les filles des Cadix” (The girls of Cadiz) opens with a pounding piano riff that launches a song suggesting Bizet to a flamenco beat with Martinez’s smoky soprano rising to toweringly high notes.
Her husband returned with remarks complimenting the Ebenezer venue and the appreciative audience, as well as the Pragers, for the salon-style atmosphere far more intimate than Bell’s usual vast concert hall settings. He then drew laughs while recounting the pandemic hibernation as a “year-long honeymoon at home” for the newlyweds who married in 2019. Bell had enough time on his hands to arrange Chopin’s best-known, much-loved nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2, to his violin interpretation. At Ebenezer, his playing rose to heightened romantic tension with a silvery smooth flow to the melody repeated with ever-more decorous techniques, culminating in quavering vibrato trills and a big-finish violin-and-piano coda.
Martinez followed with a prayerful lullaby for children by Spanish composer Montsalvatge of the Catalan region and its capital, Barcelona. Continuing her Spanish-language tour, she sang a medley of traditional Latin folk tunes and short pieces by Ovalle (Brazil), Gimenez (Spain), concluding with Figueroa of her native Puerto Rico.
For the rousing finale – Bernstein’s “West Side Story” Suite – Bell returned to the stage for an instrumental prelude with Montero, which morphed into the familiar “Maria” melody. As if responding to the invocation of her concert character’s name, Martinez rejoined them to deliver in dulcet tones the best-known songs suitable for soprano from the 1957 Broadway musical, beginning with “Tonight,” pausing for violin solo interludes. Next, she was feeling pretty as Bell’s strings sounded delighted while she figuratively looked into a mirror. But the smile on her face faded as the suite segued into “There’s a Place for Us,” even as we all know there is none for them. Once the impending doom is realized, Martinez emits a tragic soprano scream drenched in operatic anger and loss, punctuating the suite’s violent denouement to a standing ovation.
Full disclosure: My relationship with this former house of worship still evokes in me a sense of nostalgic sentiment whenever I walk up to what has been converted into a splendid and inviting concert chamber. I attended Sunday school downstairs and services in the upstairs sanctuary until 1962, when Ebenezer Methodist merged with two other Easton congregations to form St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. I was in ninth grade, and although that was a half-century ago, and I was too young to appreciate many of the sermons or hymns fully, I don’t recall anything quite as inspired as the performance I experienced Saturday night.
If you haven’t bought tickets to the sold-out Saturday night concert or the Sunday matinee, you can catch Joshua Bell performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore April 21 and 23 or the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda April 22. bsomusic.org
Gabriela Montero at Prager Concert Series
Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, December 10
Irish tenor Anthony Kearns, December 17
The 2023 season opens with Cuban clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, on June 10