in: Reviews

February 27, 2009

Eight Commissioned Works for Women’s Vocal Ensemble Take on Social Protest

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I had some anxiety about attending a concert by a women’s vocal ensemble. Would it involve choreography and costumes verging on kitsch? Surely the lack of any real bass would be a limitation.? My fears were unfounded. Anthology, an all-female vocal quartet, offered an evening of engaging and serious new music, varied with a few folk and traditional arrangements. The artistic standards were high; these professional singers have aesthetic sensibilities and as well as impressive technical chops.

Anthology took the daring path of commissioning eight new works for the concert on the theme of “Songs of Protest and Social Unrest.” The composers’ varied approaches – all laden with significance – resulted in a concert that went far beyond the fluff that is often associated with the a cappella medium. A rousing pair of South African anti-Apartheid songs started the program. The verses of Akanamandla (“He has no power”) had a central strophe performed with delicacy followed by an exuberant, percussive verse.

Composer Ivana Lisak chose to set a powerful text by Carl Sandburg, entitled Killers. Lisak, a Serbian, knows war first-hand. She noted, “even thought the poem was written as a response to World War I … the ultimate result of any war is … death.” Lisak’s understated music let the poem speak, with Sandburg’s repetition of the word “killing” – the job of the soldiers, becoming a haunting rhythmic ostinato solidifying the center of this evocative and moving stanza.

Michael J. Veloso’s set included List, a recitation of the names of the Hollywood Ten, a group of men who were persecuted for their refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The homo-rhythmic minimalism of this stark piece evoked a medieval meditative quality. Processing drew on an operations manual from a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay. The elaborate structure of this piece again suggested medieval creativity, this time in a complex and layered motet. The heightening of the words through the musical setting is comparable to the treatment of the liturgy in religious forms: “detainees remained shackled while clothing is cut off and disposed of” became a haunting cantus firmus.  There is the suggestion that this dehumanizing process of war and conflict might be looked back on as one of the notable cultural products of the US in the early 21st century.

Erin Huelskamp’s A Protest proved the most memorable and startlingly revelatory work of the evening. Her choice was a Victorian-era poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. The anxiety expressed by a woman who rises to speak her opinion before a hostile assembly unfolds haltingly and in overlapping waves of forward motion, then hesitation. Speech-like declamations spar with sung comments, electrifying the psychological battle. This is the piece I most want to hear again, to parse and savor the interplay of interjections, questions and responses.

Eva Kendrick’s moving setting of Joan Lavender Guthrie’s To D.R. in Holloway brought the work of this little-known poet to light and reminded us of the struggle for women’s suffrage. It also gave soprano Anney Gillotte a spirited and gospel-inflected cadenza; all the singing here, as elsewhere was exhilarating.

Of the arrangements, “Charlie on the MTA” was certainly educational (reminding us of the origin of the name, “Charlie Card”), but one missed the spirit that twanging guitars and a string bass could give it. In “Hay Una Mujer Desparecido,” soprano Vicky Reichert’s soaring cries were poignant.

So, I cheer “Anthology” for their adventurous programming, for the success of the musicians and the composers in “expressing opinions without imposing them” (to draw from Veloso’s words), for working with new music and young composers, and for taking on important and controversial topics. I look forward to their next program.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is http://www.brandeis.edu/centers/wsrc/scholars/profiles/Curtis.html

3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Dr. Curtis, for drawing our attention to this unique collections of singers and songs. How might we learn more about future concerts and recordings?

    Comment by Suzanne Hanser — March 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm

  2. Wow, thanks for this review! (This is the Alto 1, btw.)

    Suzanne, more information about Anthology can be found at http://www.anthologyvoices.com.

    Comment by Allegra Martin — March 8, 2009 at 10:03 pm

  3. Thank you, Dr. Curtis, for your detailed review of Anthology’s performance. This particular concert was special to us because of the collaboration with new composers and the compelling new music they allowed us to premiere.

    For Suzanne and anyone else interested in upcoming Anthology events, please visit our website: http://www.anthologyvoices.com

    Michelle Vachon
    mezzo-soprano

    Comment by Michelle Vachon — March 8, 2009 at 10:18 pm

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