in: Reviews

May 15, 2012

Cantata Singers: Contemporary Choral & Piano


Cantata Singers, led by David Hoose, and duo-pianists David Kopp and Rodney Lister presented “In Thoughts, Our Dreams” to a smallish but enthusiastic Jordan Hall audience last Saturday, May 12. This was a varied sampling of contemporary choral and piano works by Charles Fussell, Earl Kim, Harold Shapero, Rodney Lister (who all had or have important ties to greater Boston), and Aaron Copland.

The program began, appropriately enough, with Invocation by Charles Fussell (b. 1938), a choral setting of a compelling poem by May Sarton. Its first three stanzas address an unknown entity, summoning it “out of the dark earth … under the strong wave … into the pure air.” The final stanza reveals that the addressee is love, perhaps implying that love is the fourth element, fire. Originally written for chorus and one pianist, Fussell’s work was here performed in David Hoose’s arrangement for two pianos, featuring the excellent playing of Kopp and Lister. The attractive piece, with its arresting fanfare opening and tranquil, atmospheric conclusion, received a well-modulated, textually sensitive performance from Hoose and the chorus.

One of the bases for the program’s title was Some Thoughts on Keats and Coleridge by Earl Kim (1920-1998) which sets, mosaic-like, fragments of five poems by the two poets. This unorthodox procedure seems justified by the way these fragments all examine nature and the transience of life as well as their easy, natural progression from one to the next. Instead of specific word illustration, Kim lets the text selections inspire a mood, and again Hoose and the chorus were expert guides. The first poem, Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, was given an exquisite, lush setting with echoes of Elgar’s and Holst’s partsongs. The second, Keats’s Ode to Psyche, felt like a continuation of Coleridge’s idea, and the music reflected this. If I once or twice wished for a bit more contrast of mood and texture during this work, I had to concede that the composer and performers were faithful to the imagery and tenor of the text selections, and given such deathless poetry (excerpts from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, Shed No Tear — O Shed No Tear, and To Autumn made up the remainder), who could cavil? My one quibble was that the understated enunciation of the chorus necessitated frequent glances at the printed texts which, over time, becomes irksome when these are in one’s mother tongue and set in Kim’s natural, straightforward manner.

Harold Shapero (b. 1920) was a senior at Harvard when he composed his Four-Hand Sonata for Piano in 1941 to play with his friend and classmate Leonard Bernstein. Shapero’s appealing, contemporary idiom with clustered sonorities and whiffs of jazz seems to have influenced the musical direction taken by his friend later on. The first movement was heard alone here and the remaining two after intermission. The polished teamwork of Kopp and Lister and the astonishing assurance of the 20-year-old composer combined for a stimulating musical experience, fully exploiting the piano’s sustaining and percussive qualities.

Scenes from a Movie: The 26th Dream is the final segment of a trilogy by Earl Kim, setting texts from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Aus dem Traumbuch (From the Dreambook) in English translation. Unlike the two previous, more intimate scorings in the trilogy (the seventh and 11th dreams), The 26th Dream uses something more expansive: baritone, chorus, and two pianos. A member of the Cantata Singers’ bass section, Mark-Andrew Cleveland, was an excellent musician and actor, both as narrator and character. At the two pianos Lister and Kopp provided harmonic support and mood reinforcement for what was essentially dramatic recitation with music added. In a scena with great amounts of text, Kim’s syllabic, simple word-setting was a blessing, though even here the sometimes laissez-faire approach to diction had me referring to the printed text more than I wished. As with a scene performed out of context, the specific references to many events and people required the imagination of audience members to fill in the gaps. The prevailing atmosphere of muted angst was well conveyed especially by the chorus, though there were times when I wished their elegantly blended tone might yield momentarily, for the sake of the drama, to something with a bit more bite.

Following intermission we first heard The Annunciation, by one of the concert’s pianists, Rodney Lister (b. 1951). A typical approach to this event — the Angel Gabriel arriving to inform the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen to bear the Son of God — is to illustrate first Mary’s astonishment and then her joy. However, Lister chose the path less taken, a largely quiet response as though Mary has been stunned into silence. The composer set a passage from W. H. Auden’s For the Time Bein” to gently astringent harmonies frequently based on 7th chords. The garden is the central motif, both the literal place where Mary encounters Gabriel and a symbol of her virginal body and mind. The passage ends: “The garden unchanged, the silence unbroken: None may wake there but One who shall be woken. Wake.” The triple repetition, pianissimo, of the last word — as if coaxing a loved one out of slumber with supreme gentleness — was quite moving.

We next heard the remaining two movements of Harold Shapero’s Four-Hand Sonata for Piano. (I should mention here that an earlier rendition of this piece by Kopp and Lister is accessible on youtube.) The second movement was an effective mélange of fanfare flourishes, a calm world-weary theme, and some quasi-flippant figures. In the final movement, even among the shifting meters, one could pick out snatches of rhumba rhythm (3+3+2). This section was somewhat less serious-minded than the preceding ones, and like the “Brasileira” finale of Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, its mounting brilliance and excitement swept the listener along. It was heartwarming at the end to see the nonagenarian composer rise to receive the audience’s rapturous applause.

The program concluded with its best-known work, Aaron Copland’s most significant choral piece, In the Beginning, for mezzo soprano and chorus a cappella. Janna Baty was superb, both leading and collaborating with the chorus in telling the creation story from Genesis. In a work with rather numerous moments of bitonality and complex chords, Baty’s pitch — and that of her fellow singers — was as unshakable as God’s purpose. Though much of the early part of the piece is moderate of tempo and dynamic, the performers’ inner intensity never flagged, and there was an impressive climax at the point when mankind is created, highlighted by bare octaves and jagged skips. At “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven … and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years …” the syncopations danced vigorously and merrily with exemplary ensemble. The concluding climax — “and [God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” — was at once ecstatic and triumphant.

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.



1 Comment

  1. * I attended this concert with two fellow subscribers. One of them, not given to hyperbole — actually, just the opposite — described the Copland as “thrilling.” I heartily concur.

    Comment by Paul Lewis — May 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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