Who can argue with the premise that Coro Allegro’s “… musical journey will take us through a range of emotions in the broader context of the human experience.”? What fault can we find with such a declamation as “To unemployment, poverty, and hunger, no!”? What about rhyming skill, till, fill, kill? Upon reading the notes and texts before Sunday’s We Will Rise concert at Sanders, one wondered how the music could convey these polemics and whether we would feel welcome.
To raise consciousness of the plight of refugees from Aleppo, Syrian-American Kareem Rouston’s Rage Against the Tyrant(s) employed shouts of demonstrators, lists of loaded words, and poetic reminiscences of better times in an eclectic world-musical language suited to expressions of both rage and nostalgia. The composer’s stylistic fluidity enrobed natural speech patterns from substantially different contexts in appropriate musical forms during his journey from anger to love.
Part One of five, “The Street Awakens,” opened with almost inaudible sul ponticello bow tappings. They increased in volume and became general in the 20-person string orchestra before the women declaimed “The People want to reform the system,” somewhat in the inspirational cantata manner of Randall Thompson in the Testament of Freedom. The straight signing of the LBGTQ+ chorus (37 SA and 24 TB—note that we do not use gender binaries; one bearded bass singer appeared in a long skirt) made all parallel open intervals and dissonances pungently clear. That conductor David Hodgkins, celebrating his 25th season, can cultivate such purity from a not-very-young contingent, amazed us. Demanding an end to injustice, the chorus of the street built to a fine dialectical frenzy.
Walking pizzi led off “When I was torn by war.” More talking patterns followed, with lots of unison speechmaking and community chorus harmonizations. Roustom did not quite plumb the pathos of the section’s last lines: “Weaving a shroud / for the dead man / still in her womb.”
In “Aleppo the Necklace Broke All the Words Fell Apart,” the chorus exclaimed 60 or so individual words with seemingly random inflections over a virtual loop of string figures and patterns which included tremolos and strong accents. Not having seen the score, I can only speculate that the players executed quarter-tones deliberately. The concluding paean to Aleppo, “Halab, Halab,/ Halabi” seemed to run out of steam.
Roustom set a traditional Holy Week prayer in the Syriac tongue; “Gnen Abde Bc Elito Droze/ wQowim Wo, Mroro Qdomayhun (On the night before the Passion, / the Lord of all creation stood)” it began. Sounding worshipfully Middle Eastern, it orientalized the proceedings to something safer, and, without anger, evoking service music and plainchant. The chorus managed the strange language and the odd intervals with exemplary steadiness.
“We Loved the Land,” found Hodgkins placing Coro Allegro in a fine groove. Beginning with scurrying strings forming an attractive drone, it vividly painted the remembered, or wished-for, scenes of honey and birdsong with plaintive entreaty. Roustom supplied an altogether attractive and colorful account, although sans the promised rage against tyranny.
After intermission, CA president Kip Ellis presented the Daniel Pinkham Award to executive director of GALA Choruses Robin Godfrey, a person “much admired for her accomplishment in fostering recognition of sexual minority choruses.”
Shawn Kirchner’s pathway to life as a composer began with childhood immersion in choral activities of Anabaptist and Mennonite churches. Known for songwriting in “styles from jazz and gospel to folk and bluegrass,” he surprisingly musicked the ten Psalms of Ascent (to Jerusalem) with Mendelssohnian geniality and polish. Kirchner’s occasional mild dissonances might not have surprised the composer who restored the Matthew Passion to the Christian people. Gunther Schuller used to point out Bach’s then shocking use of ninth chords in that work as the single most transformative moment in the Western canon.
Songs of Ascent begins with David’s vow recalled in Psalm 132 to establish the Temple. Kircher’s scoring recalls the ancient and timeless call and response of cantor and congregation in a long sad introduction that promised complete engagement with text over a long sad journey. Harp and cello continuo supported bass Sumner Thompson’s radiant cantorial invocation.
While the choral and orchestra writing and singing in Psalm 122 did radiate angelic joy, it could not leap as an art to the vivats that Sir Hubert Parry interposed in his exuberant coronation anthem “I Was Glad.”
Soprano Dana Varga began “Lord, my heart is not haughty” (131) in a still small voice which she and the composer developed and shaped into a lovely silver strand. To the SSAA reassurances in “Surely I have quieted myself,” TTBB responded in like manner. With a gorgeous diminuendo, tenor Jonas Budris certified consolingly that “My soul is even as a weaned child.”
In its canonic, imitative, and almost pastoral writing, Kirchner’s most Mendelssohnian section, Psalm 127 (“Except the Lord build the house …”), recalled “Yet does the Lord see it now” from Elijah. Though the straight tone and choral discipline kept all the fugal entrances clear, a bit more variety of production was wanted by this point.
Tenor and bass soloists intoned “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side …” (124) with prophetical passion. The orchestra summoned much energy, but the writing did not quite reach a dramatic summit lofty and craggy enough for a work of biblical proportions. The composer told us afterward that in the next performance, the bass and tenor sections will take this portion, and he noted that, “. . . any work of art needs to have adequate conflict to sustain itself dramatically over its entirety, and that [this work’s] final form has not yet been achieved.” At this point in the narrative, a chorus of Baal worshippers for the Lord to smash would have been just the ticket.
Although Bach set “Out of the depths I cry to Thee” (130) with a rising figure, that pattern didn’t work as well for Kirchner. In my head Schubert’s “Krieger’s Ahnung” cried out to me. Yet the conclusion of section nine, in which a humming chorus accompanied the solo trio in “The Lord shall preserve thy going out … ,” made for moving final priestly benediction.
The tenth and concluding section began with the agreeable sentiment, “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (133). This big affirmational number, recalling “Blessing and Honor” from Messiah, could stand alone in a concert.
Throughout the afternoon, Coro Allegro’s tireless and accurate sound broke forth with a distinctive character. One rarely hears straight singing paired with emotional investment like this! Shapeliness, well-considered dynamics, and youthful sound prevailed and abided with them, and in the a cappella portions, pitch never wavered. Thus sang surely one of Boston’s fine volunteer choruses. Even though essays and speakers professed an agenda, the music spoke to the heart.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer