in: Reviews

March 19, 2012

Fascinating Diversity from Spectrum Singers

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The Spectrum Singers, directed by John W. Ehrlich, enjoys exploring the less frequented corners of the choral repertoire and finding forgotten treasures to mix in with staples of the genre. Its latest presentation, on Saturday, March 17th, at First Church, Cambridge, was an ambitious undertaking entitled “A 20th-Century Choral Kaleidoscope.” This appellation was well justified by the mostly a cappella program’s fascinating diversity of styles which, though highly challenging, remained almost entirely in the realm of tonality.

The program was bookended by performances of Odeà la Musique by Swiss composer Frank Martin. This pæan to music sets a wonderful poem by 14th-century bard Guillaume de Machaut. It speaks of the many charms of music and features multiple styles of writing, including pungent harmonies (though conservative by 1961 standards) as well as an evocation of medieval organum when the text refers to “caroles.” The accompaniment is assigned to an idiosyncratic band — six brass players, a string bass, and piano — and there is an extended baritone solo in the middle, sensitively sung here by Donald Wilkinson. Martin’s consistent sensitivity to his text demands the same from performers. Chorus, soloist, and instrumentalists earned high marks here, by turns vigorous, introspective, ethereal, and triumphant. The second performance had perhaps an extra degree of relaxed confidence, but both were enthralling.

Proceeding into the a cappella realm, Olivier Messiaen’s evergreen O sacrum convivium, despite occasionally uncertain pitch, had a hushed intensity not often heard. Highlights of Claude Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans included the vocal imitation of percussion in Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin (When I hear the little drum) and the enjoyably exaggerated drama of Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain (Winter, you’re nothing but a scoundrel). Forgotten treasures, possibly receiving their North American premiere, formed the next set, Trois Chansons, written in 1938 by well-known conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976) to sweetly surreal texts by Fernand Marc. The second (“The princes who protect weighty secrets”) was especially enchanting, full of sensuous beauty and finely graded crescendi/diminuendi, ending on an unresolved chord. Spectrum soprano Maki Koto Carman gave winsome voice to a “young rose.”

After the Francophone portion of the program, Samuel Barber’s 1942 Reincarnations led off the American remainder. Appropriately for a St. Patrick’s Day concert, the composition set words of Irish poets James Stephens and Anthony Raftery. These three unaccompanied choral pieces are stern tests of any choir, and there were occasional minor imperfections of harmony and tuning, but the Spectrum Singers’ involvement in the drama, under Ehrlich’s passionate direction, was palpable. Perhaps the evening’s height of focused intensity was the second piece, Anthony O Daly. Daly, hanged in 1820 purportedly for heading an agrarian terrorist group, was widely considered a martyr. Raftery was present at the execution and wrote an ostensible lament for Daly, which is in fact more of a curse on his executioners. Barber’s musical treatment is stark and unrelieved, building to an agonized climax and further intensified by the continuous repetition of the note E above or below the melody for virtually the entire piece. At the conclusion (“There is nothing but grief!”) of Spectrum’s carefully paced, riveting account, a keening siren from across the Cambridge Common for once added a touch of serendipity instead of interfering.

The youngest piece performed was Novum Decus Oritur (A New Splendor Arises), written three years ago by Joshua Hummel (b. 1980). The composer supplied a note that spelled out in enthusiastic detail his conception of the piece’s musical-architectural representation of a cathedral and the aspect of Christian belief associated with each part. But ultimately, like a layperson who has left his Baedeker guide behind, I enjoyed the work most when I simply let it act on my own visual imagination. Ehrlich and his singers were expert guides, letting us bask in a rich pianissimo,building to a resplendent climax, and dying away gradually. Spectrum soprano Carol McKeen gave us many an elegant arched phrase over the choral texture, and these did call to my mind flying buttresses. Happily, Hummel was present to receive the hearty applause of the audience.

Aaron Copland’s An Immorality (1926) was of course the starkest possible contrast to the above. Ezra Pound’s rather naughty text is encapsulated in its first couplet: “Sing we for love and idleness, Naught else is worth the having.” Scored for women’s voices with piano, most of it is virtually jazz with its deliciously syncopated accompaniment and liberal helpings of “blue notes.” One relished the single internal contrast: the third couplet becomes lyrical, even rhapsodic for the text, “And I would rather have my sweet, Though rose-leaves die of grieving …” Another versatile soloist from the soprano section, Tricia Kennedy, made a lovely effect here before taking us back to mock-heroic in the final couplet and thoroughly milking the spoof-cadenza. James R. Barkovic had a jaunty romp through the cheeky piano part.

The three Carols of Death (intriguing title!) by William Schuman are settings of some of Walt Whitman’s most beautiful and moving poems. The Last Invocation is a mostly gentle appeal for death to set the poet free. The singers built, however, to a powerful though unresolved ending, as the text notes how strong is the hold of mortal flesh and of love. The Unknown Region casts a spell of disorientation as it wanders through a completely foreign landscape with no reference points whatsoever, powerfully underscored by Schuman’s use of atonality. In Spectrum’s muted, almost vibrato-less performance, it was akin to musical sleepwalking until the end, when a sudden rise to forte seemed like a sudden awakening and panic attack — again, with resolution withheld. To All, To Each is the poet’s personal yet universal beckoning of Death. The singers’ creamy legato and smooth blend were deeply affecting, and at the dénouement — “to all, to each, Sooner or later delicate death” — the tonal resolution to the whole set provided considerable comfort.

Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque (Light and Gold) has gained some notoriety for its performance by the composer‘s “Virtual Choir” of thousands of singers worldwide via the Internet. However, I had not experienced it online and am glad to report that it can stand up quite well as a choral work independent of the World Wide Web. It is an American cousin to O sacrum convivium with its concentrated stasis — perhaps even closer to a few of Messiaen’s ultra-slow organ works where lung capacity is not an issue! Here too, the often low tessitura creates rich colors like light through a kaleidoscope. Ehrlich’s Spectrum Singers and Tricia Kennedy created a lush ambience, aided by First Church’s reverberant acoustics.

David Del Tredici’s Final Alice, a product of the composer’s obsession with Alice in Wonderland, was one of the foremost classical “success stories” of the 1970s, giving American soprano Barbara Hendricks a major career break when she premiered it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1976. We heard the excerpt Acrostic Song, arranged by the composer for soprano, chorus a cappella, and “stage whisperer.” It is so named because if one reads the first letter of each line of text vertically, they collectively spell out “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” the young English girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s stories. The singers and still another soprano section member, Ree-Ven Wang, created a dreamy summer’s day atmosphere, though perhaps the lullaby did its work a little too well when the pitch slightly slipped southward later in the piece. James Barkovic lent some unusual atmosphere, with a little electronic assistance, by whispering each initial letter as it was reached. The performers’ affectionate rendering made a beguiling idyll whose theme was summed up in the last line — “Life, what is it but a dream?”—left unresolved on a dominant chord.

The musicians seemed re-energized for the second performance of Martin’s Ode à la Musique, and the concert concluded with a “y’all come” encore rendition of Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque with all willing audience members participating, arrayed around the perimeter of the sanctuary in perhaps a microcosmic taste of the “Virtual Choir.” Hats off to John Ehrlich and the Spectrum Singers for another fascinating mixture of the cherished familiar, the unjustly neglected, and exciting newer “up-and-comers.”

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach and currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church.

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