Perhaps I should learn how to laugh more. Calmus Ensemble Leipzig’s performance of a cappella works entitled “The Bright Side of Life” incorporated works from Distler, Reger, Schütz, and Brahms into arrangements of music by Sting, Michael Jackson, and Freddie Mercury on the evening of Friday, July 15 in Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center. The program made even the stodgiest of us at least crack a smile.
There’s personal taste at play here: the five-person ensemble presented Friday’s first-programmed works with a well-veneered, straight tone. This approach did much for Hugo Distler’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, a polyphonic work that thrived in the sharp vocal contrasts of the five-member ensemble. Although this approach is gratifying to hear, late Romantic works by Reger (Wir glauben an einen Gott and Nachtlied) or Brahms (O süsser Mai and Fahr wohl) seemed somehow inaccessible and sterile with this approach. Even earlier works by Schütz (two Italian madrigals–Alma afflitta, che fai? and Dunque addio, care selve) felt somehow impenetrable with the carefully crafted voices of Calmus Leipzig. The characteristic straight tone also revealed some surprising pitch problems.
Although pitch remained an issue throughout the evening, the ensemble seemed more at home with more humorous work that seemed to focus less on the ensemble’s technical skills. Tone and blend seemed less important in the somewhat slapstick pastiche of Adriano Banchieri’s Il festino nella sera del Giovedi Grasso. After intermission, Calmus Leipzig continued with four Poulenc chansons: La Belle Si Nous Étions; Clic, Clac, Dansez Sabots; Ah! Mon Beau Laboureur; and Les Tisserands. Although members of the ensemble volunteered information on each of the works performed, these brief speeches were no substitute for printed texts and translations or, in the case of the Poulenc pieces, titles. (These took the place of three jazz-ballads on poems by Charles Baudelaire that were originally slated for performance.)
The ensemble continued by launching into a cappella renditions of pop favorites, all of which were performed without scores. Although none of the arrangements seemed particularly challenging or novel (the goal, clearly, was to recreate — not to innovate — pop favorites with the five voices of the ensemble), this portion of the evening seemed most successful. And why not? After brief maudlin offerings with Sting’s Fragile, Mercury’s Love of My Life, and Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time, the ensemble presented truly delightful and entertaining renditions of Eric Idle’s comic Always look on the Bright Side of Life, made famous by Monty Python in the Life of Brian, and Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy. A genuine effort of engaging with the audience, these works proved far more memorable than the works performed earlier.
After an evening of comedy and hilarity, the ensemble rewarded enthusiastic applause with an encore performance of Manu Chao’s Bongo Bong — a highly spirited performance that earned a standing ovation from the sizeable audience.