Cantilena, a women’s chorale under the direction of Allegra Martin, performed an entertaining, and in many places, humorously light Sunday evening concert for its Arlington audience at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church on May 6th. Although the title and theme of this concert was “Making a Mess!”, its demands for a volunteer ensemble ironically required a high level of musical precision both in terms of rhythmic syncopation and entrances, as well as harmonic intonation — contrary to the philosophy of the program’s centerpiece and raison d’être, Why I Pity the Woman Who Never Spills. Set to a poem by Joan Wolf Prefontaine, the text celebrates a sensually word-“smeared,” poetic antidote to every woman’s perfectionist grappling with her inner “Stepford Wife” while imaginatively supported by a bluesy and truly inspired musical setting for women’s chorus by composer Elizabeth Alexander who states, “I’m not sure there’s a woman anywhere who hasn’t experienced the pressure to act, look, sound, and perform flawlessly…” That is precisely the pressure these ensemble members had to have been under given the challenging nature of the program they tackled with commendable competency.
In the spirit of “messes” of all sorts, the concert opened with two sophisticatedly arranged folk tunes in the style of sea shanties from the Canadian coast – both stories about shipwreck, in which the first had a successful rescue, the latter unsuccessful. The first was entitled and based on the story of The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie. Heavily accompanied, the piano part contained some harrowing bits in which accompanist Joshua T. Lawton certainly had his hands full. Although expressive, the piece seemed to cry out for more power from the ensemble, either in the form of fuller voices or perhaps a kind of shape note-like belting style in places, while being executed by a group of lighter voices. But the second a cappella piece, Frobisher Bay by James Gordon, was stunning – both the most somber piece on the program and the most emotionally moving; a perfect fit for these women, who did real justice to it through their inspired performance. As an audience member, the cold, glassy, loneliness and longing for home in the arms of a loved one in the text, and its rocking, sweetly dissonant melodic arrangement were earnestly transferred.
The next three pieces on the program were all 18th-century English catches (as opposed to rounds) which the director explains the difference as being, “… a round is usually one melody that can be successfully started at regular timed intervals to create harmony; in a catch, the harmony is created by three or four separate melodies that also often reveal an added verbal meaning when the lines are combined.” A catch of catches by J.B. Marella is a ‘self-reflexive’ (to use a cinema term) catch about the chaos of getting singers together to sing a catch. The debate by Joseph Baildon is a catch about politics, and Playhouse Hubbub by the more famous theater music composer of the day, Thomas Arne, is a catch about traffic congestion after a theatrical production (a topic currently applicable to any Red Sox game). All done with gusto, the group’s harmonic intonation was periodically not quite as accurate, but not for want of too little to think about. All the catches were in a major key with a great deal of patter and some lovely upper register, the most impressive aspect being their courageous willingness to get out of their music and produce dramatic interactive hand gestures and facial expression while staying on top of very tricky entrances.
Over the course of two halves of the concert, the audience got to hear movements II and III (III during the second half) of the Three Ways to Vacuum Your House, written and composed by Stephen Hatfield. In her program notes, Allegra Martin writes, “Mr. Hatfield, who lives in Vancouver, is known for incorporating varied multicultural influences into his choral music… Part II borrows musical ideas from reggae and tonalities from Brazil and Lebanon, while Part III steals from Peru, travels up towards Mexico, and then veers into Scotland for an energetic finish!” Martin is especially interested in bringing to audience’s attention new and unfamiliar music that would otherwise not be heard in more traditional programs. Her accessibly “inventive” programming is to be commended, but from a practical standpoint, programs like this are ambitious and take an exorbitant amount of time to learn on the part of volunteer musicians with “day jobs.” Although pushing the envelope of musicianship is intellectually stimulating and certainly not harmful, and neither is it a mistake to expose audiences in entertaining ways to new music, it does render striving for perfection nearly impossible, and these are the pieces that seemed to suffer the most for want of time. With that said, they were by no means poorly executed, just frayed around the edges, but all in the spirit of the theme of the concert, one might say.
The Blue Eye of God, written by Barbara Powis and set to music by composer Nancy Telfar; as beautiful as the image of the title is, as a work of art, it didn’t quite live up to its profound environmentalist intention. It was executed well by this group with some memorable qualities. With eel-like sonorities and other notable moments Martin describes as “the living, leaping nature of the subjects of the poem through repeated rising figures underneath a floating melody,” it promised to tug at an emotional sense of foreboding that all is not well in the mysterious underworld of the sea; but somehow it failed to completely let go of contrivance and allow inspiration to transport the work beyond rudimentary political message.
The Dove Pursues the Griffin, text by William Shakespeare, which closed the first half, was set by Cantilena ensemble member Ashi Day with notable innovation. It is a setting of Helena’s speech to Demetrius in Act II of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and brings to mind a refreshingly vivid, guttural experience of the expression, “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.” Lawton’s accompaniment played an essential part in creating the atmosphere, “…improvising a rock/blues inspired accompaniment at the piano…” while a partner strummed and hit the lower strings inside the instrument. “Day vividly portrays Helena’s anger and heartbreak in a rhythmic and growling setting,” Martin describes in her program notes. While “heartbreak” may be the trigger, the prevailing driving force performed with a twinkle in everyone’s eye would be rage, and the portrayal of that rage was dramatically successful.
The second half opened with three gospel tunes, the first an arrangement by Marylou Jackson of Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, a lighter number arranged by Damon H. Dandridge entitled Scandalize my name, and In dat great getting’ up mornin’ arranged by Byron J. Smith. This choir’s sound is a little too Anglican for spirituals; again, the timbre could have benefited from a shape note/Bulgarian belting quality in places, and that made the seemingly unfriendly tessitura in the first number sound a bit uncomfortably high. The second piece featured some delightful props, Easter-inspired Baptist church-lady hats in pastel chiffon colors wore by the two soloists “down front,” presenting a scene reminiscent of the “Pick a little Talk a little” ladies in Music Man. The tessitura in the second piece was kinder, as the group started to create what could almost pass for authentic gospel sonorities and a fun-loving spirit took over, with an exciting finish in the form of a dramatic, soprano high note by soloist Ashi Day.
The concert closed with a patter piece entitled “The Stove” from a set called The Muse, The Stove, and the Willow Plate. Evidenced by the beaming expression on every participant’s face, it is reported to be a favorite among the chorus. Set by Zae Munn to a text by Ann Kilkelly, it is not surprising why; it tells the story of a mother who “…runs out of patience one day, takes out a sledgehammer, and pounds the kitchen stove into bits” with straightforward, rhythmic patter in a major key, and drolly clever text; for a group of women consisting certainly of mothers, grandmothers, and probably some administrative assistants, what more satisfying end could there be to a musically challenging (and perhaps in the rehearsal process, sometimes frustrating) program — all about “Making a Mess!” — than to band together and sing in parts — a vivid description of bashing in a kitchen appliance.