Of the bundle of 14 songs we heard at First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington Sunday evening, all but one were composed within the past 50 years or so. Cantilena’s different-stepping “Poetic License” presented new and unfamiliar (to me, at least) choral pieces. The newest of these fairly new works came from a commission; it was the first performance of Scott Wheeler’s setting of “Jabberwocky.” All this made for quite a bit of welcome freshness. And, I hasten to add, from start to finish, this little bundle of a program was exceptionally well-paced, even the intermission kept in step.
In case you are a newcomer to Cantilena as I am, you may wish to know that this 30-voice women’s chorale performs music written for the treble voice. “We strive to introduce both our members and our audiences to works they are unlikely to encounter in other forums.” With so much music making in Boston I was surprised to see such a turnout—there was scarcely an empty seat.
Gwyneth Walker’s setting of May Sarton’s “Now I Become Myself” took the title as a litany that would build to the piece’s climax. Cantilena surprised with a burst of volume filling the sanctuary. Two madrigals by Roger Bourland on words of Francisco X. Alarcón focused on the pureness of triadic sounds, especially major chords, which, when vocalized by this all-female a cappella choir felt innocent. Of childishness, too, as in the second madrigal: “beneath this language there’s another…children teach it to their dogs…”
A most pleasing upper register harmony sailed from Cantilena on “we & worlds are less alive than dolls & dream,” this, from e. e. cummings, his “Dominic Has a Doll,” with music by the familiar Vincent Persichetti. One of several selections explicitly celebrating the life of a former choral member was “I Know a Place,” words by Martha Hogan and music by Kenneth H. Seitz, who also played the piano accompaniment. Brian Holmes’ choral setting of “Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon continued the musically conservative side of “Poetic License.”
Commissioned Boston composer Scott Wheeler wrote, “It was Allegra’s inspired suggestion that the accompaniment be for two cellos, whose bows could suggest ‘verbal swords’ and whose sound could provide a richness and a transparency that would beautifully set off the women’s voices.” What Allegra suggested Wheeler delivered. His setting of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” also impressed upon the words a rare depth of musical instinct and understanding, at once fast-moving and inviting. The snappy accents of “Bandersnatch!” was just one fun play of sound and word. Cellists Jacqueline Ludwig and Brent Selby provided further that “richness” suggested for the accompaniment. Cantilena commissioned the work in honor of the long-time member who passed away last spring.
Piano accompanist Joshua T. Lawton and Music Director Allegra Martin brought plenty of high-stepping jauntiness to the American musical stage style Irving Fine carved out for his choral version of “Father William,” also from the pen of Lewis Carroll. “Three Two-Part Songs” of Benjamin Britten and “Chorus of Witches” from Macbeth, (Act III) of Giuseppe Verdi found their way into freshness via the finely focused conducting of Martin and the totally engaged voices of Cantilena.
“Poetic License” ended with Eleanor Daley’s setting of “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W. B. Yeats. In Martin’s words, “This song has particular resonance for Cantilena, for we love to sing this tender music…For this song we invite any Cantilena alumnae in the audience to come up and sing with us.” Some half-dozen did so. It was a touching moment. Thanks especially to the frank involvement of Martin and Cantilena I left feeling a sense of renewal, just right for this time of year.