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Divine, Deranged, and “Uncomfortable Truths” in Music about Mothers


“Music about Mothers, from the Divine, to the Deranged” Such was the title of the program on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 9) by Cantilena, under the direction of Allegra Martin, performing at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington; Joshua T. Lawton, organist at the First Congregational Church in Natick, was the competent piano accompanist. Cantilena was originally founded in 1968 as the Cambridge Chorale. A dozen years later it became a women’s chorus under the direction of Kenneth Seitz, (who stepped down last year), but the name change did not occur until 2000. The chorus now numbers about 30  and focuses on music originally written (not arranged) for women’s voices. This is Allegra Martin’s first season as director, and programming is her strong suit. Instead of a “holiday concert” this past winter, she concentrated on music of Scandinavian composers’ rich choral tradition in a program of “Northern Lights.”

Given the title, the primary interest for this concert was in the well-chosen poetry. The settings of the introductory liturgical texts were by Bobby McFerrin (“23rd Psalm,” dedicated to his mother —  with changes in gender of pronouns), Francis Poulenc (“Ave Maria,” from Dialogues des Carmelites), Maurice Duruflé (“Tota pulcra es,” the second of his Quatre motets), and Gabriel Fauré (“Ave Maria”).  The other poems were by Francisco X. Alarcón, Rachel Barenblat, Rudyard Kipling, Isabel MacMeekin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and Ann Kikelly. The composers setting these were Roger Bourland (excerpts from his Alarcón Matrigals, Michael J. Veloso (Letters to Little Bean), Eric Whitacre (“The Seal Lullaby”), Irving Fine (“Caroline Million,” from The Choral New Yorker), Gwyneth Walker (Mother Earth — Songs of a Strong Woman), and Zae Munn (“Grandma’s Alleluia,” and “The Stove”). Complete texts, with translations as needed, were provided, as were excellent program notes by Ms. Martin. As she wrote, “Today’s program will acknowledge both the transcendent aspect of motherhood and the occasionally uncomfortable day-to-day truths.” A large audience comprising mostly women resonated warmly to the point as the concert proceeded.

In many ways the loveliest was the first: Bobby McFerrin’s. The singers entered the room by surrounding the audience. The Psalm setting was in the manner of Anglican chant, in that each verse was broken into two segments of harmonic change with melodic movement only at the end of each to settle into the cadence. The close harmonies were “easy listening” (this piece appeared on his Medicine Man recording in 1990) and rang beautifully among the audience in this “surround sound” setting.

Cantilena has worked closely with Roger Bourland over the years; this time their choice was two lyrical but angular works about grandmothers. The centerpiece was a commissioned work by Boston composer Michael J. Veloso setting two poems from a cycle of eight poems, Letters to Little Bean, written by Rachel Barenblat during her first successful pregnancy. The first poem, written early on, expresses fear of miscarriage; the second, written near the end, “blends anticipation and excitement with self-doubt.” Both Veloso and Barenblat are close friends of the conductor, probably from their alma mater, Williams College, and the chorus had met “Little Bean” (a.k.a. Drew) the day before (according to the poet’s blog), so there was definitely a feeling that this was a family affair.

Irving Fine’s “Caroline Million” (Isabelle MacMeekin), with piano accompaniment, was certainly the liveliest of the lot. “Caroline Million is 100 years old – She feels pretty fine but her feet are cold.” The rollicking rhyme pervades the musical texture. Similarly Granma’s Alleluia by Zae Munn (Ann Kilkelly), a long poem about a grandma who insists on taking a long train ride alone, is constructed over a constant rhythmic ostinato, “the train, the train, the train,” &c. Finally, “The Stove,” by the same creators, though not lively musically, conjures up a vigorous visual image as a mother pounds her stove to bits with a sledgehammer. Again, much is made of the rhythmic repetition, “into bits.” Perhaps the most moving was Gwyneth Walker’s “Mother to Son,” set to the poem by Langston Hughes from The Weary Blues (1926).

In spite of this inventive programming, there was a sameness about the music that is hard to explain. Some of it “goes with the territory” of a concert for all women’s (or men’s) voices — that is, the sameness of tessitura. The chorus seemed well-rehearsed, animated, focused on the conductor, and well disciplined. They always sang in tune, and their diction was good (although the printed texts were certainly necessary). Allegra Martin is young, no more than four years past her studies at Westminster Choir College with the eminent Joseph Flummerfelt. Her conducting style is calm, with movement only in her hands, arms, and facial expression, and a telling flick of the wrist. I wish her well as she bravely makes her way in Boston. Clearly she has a great deal of musical intelligence going for her.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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