Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s searching and experimenting exploration of new ways of presenting choral music from a wide spectrum of sources, from medieval to living composers, has driven its stunning ascent within Boston’s distinguished and rich choral community. On Saturday at the Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Skylark, directed by Matthew Guard, revisited its first “story concert,” a 2016 collaboration with professional storyteller Sarah Walker. This occasion was also notable for the introductory speech and intermission interviews by Joyce Kulhawik, the longtime arts and entertainment reporter at WBZ-TV, Boston. While the 2016 version had already revealed a creative concept, Guard collaborated in the subsequent years with Walker and composer Benedict Sheehan to develop it into something somewhat more homogeneous, retaining the 10 composers who, they had chosen earlier, while adding Sheehan’s interstitial music among the 16 selected works and during much of Walker’s narration of the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Yet even in its original form, Walker and Guard certainly intended the show for adults rather than children: the narration didn’t shy away from the darker, more frightening aspects of the tales, the varied and sophisticated music ranged from the 19th to the 21st centuries (including five living composers), set to a rather dazzling array of languages including English, French, Spanish, Serbian, Estonian, Swedish, and Finnish.
We first heard music heard neither part of the “Snow White” story nor evocative of its mood, instead serving as a “once upon a time” curtain-raiser. Vaughan Williams’s extremely evocative setting of “The Cloud Capp’d Towers” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in its short timespan created a fantasy world. The work’s lush harmonies and frequently unpredictable chord progressions vividly illustrated the titular towers, gorgeous palaces, solemn temples, and the great globe itself. Guard’s majestic slow tempo and the singers’ serene control effectively suspended time. The final two lines, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,/and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” sounded haunting indeed. As Walker began narrating Snow White, Sheehan’s music continued the otherworldly atmosphere of Vaughan Williams’s music while taking us into the chilly E minor tonality of the next piece; the first movement of Francis Poulenc’s Un soir de neige (A Snowy Evening). Though inspired by events late in World War II, it caught the mood of the fairy tale’s opening as Snow White’s mother, a queen, dies giving birth to her. In Skylark’s polished performance, the grimness of Paul Éluard’s poem as well as the quiet determination of Poulenc’s music came through clearly.
A mystical musical bridge fleshed out Walker’s enactment of the “Mirror, mirror” scene, our first encounter with the new queen, Snow White’s foreboding stepmother. The ensuing work featured the unlikely but powerful combination of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2006) and the Spanish poetry of Federico García Lorca. The musicians’ arresting singing of El grito (The Scream) gave dramatic life to Rautavaara’s startling upward glissandos and crunching tone clusters while leaving no doubt as to the new queen’s sinister intentions. To fit the needs of the story, Guard reordered the remaining movements of Un soir de neige, next presenting the third, Bois meurtri (Bruised Woods), as Snow White is abandoned in a wintry forest. The parallels of this music—very slow tempo, unexpected harmonic progressions, foreign atmosphere—to that of The Cloud Capp’d Towers are striking but utilized to quite different ends. Given Éluard’s pessimistic text, one might wonder if Snow White could possibly survive the elements, and Poulenc’s music offers no reassurance, ending on an unresolved chord and the word “dead.” Of course, she does survive by finding the abode of the seven dwarves and agreeing to keep house for them. The subsequent celebration leads to a much-needed bit of comic relief in El Hambo by Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963). The title refers to a Swedish folk dance, but nothing else in the “text” means anything. While the vocal utterances reveled in nonsense syllables, the accompanying music was quite listenable, with fleeting influences as disparate as Béla Bartók’s Rumanian Dances and the Swedish chef from The Muppet Show! The artists gave an infectiously rhythmic and amusing account, aided by regular clapping and stomping.
We swiftly returned to reality, though, as the evil queen learns of Snow White’s continued existence and plots anew to kill her using a visually captivating but highly poisonous apple. In the second movement of Un soir de neige (La bonne neige or The Good Snow), Poulenc’s music fits the narrative rather better than Éluard’s text, the former mixing sorrow and gentle beauty while the latter is almost entirely grim and foreboding. Skylark’s contrasts of dynamics and articulation pointed up the important dichotomies here: the beauty of winter snow and the impending death of hunted prey; the allure of the apple and its deadly power. After Snow White met her disguised stepmother and took a fatal bite of the apple, Poulenc’s final movement (La nuit le froid la solitude or Night, Cold, Loneliness) burst in. Here Éluard’s text more closely paralleled the story than before, describing a person lying on the ground in a frigid forest and freezing to death. The dwarves discover Snow White’s body and mourn her, building a glass coffin for her. The surpassingly beautiful “Lay a Garland” by Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795-1856), , in a gentle but heartfelt rendering at once elegiac and warmly anodyne, seemed an inspired choice here. But of course, an improbable plot twist brings a prince to the heroine’s coffin who restores her to life and marries her. The Grimm brothers’ ending poses a dilemma for the choice of closing piece by juxtaposing the joyous celebration of the wedding of Snow White and the prince with the gruesome demise of the evil queen, forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. Since it is most unlikely that any single piece of music could convincingly encompass two such widely divergent outcomes, it would be churlish to take issue with Guard’s choice of the Serbian folksong Fatiše Kolo (Circle Dance). The song is surely more celebratory than vengeful, and the singers clearly enjoyed its high spirits even as they expertly navigated its irregular meters, delivering a clear “happily ever after” ending.
After intermission the second of Vaughan Williams’s Shakespeare Songs, “Full Fathom Five,” raised the curtain for Andersen’s tale, The Little Mermaid. As before, the work’s text, which concerns a father lost at sea, had only a tenuous connection with the ensuing fairy tale, but the music’s hypnotic foreignness skillfully depicted the unknown world beneath the sea surface. Transformation provided the one motif common to both this music and the story, and the phrase “a sea-change into something rich and strange” rose to a highlight of this concert. The music evoked this brilliantly thanks to the beautifully transparent singing of the ensemble, giving Vaughan Williams’s rich, strange harmonies their maximum effect. Andersen’s story begins with a shipwreck which enables the mermaid to encounter a handsome (human) prince; she saves his life and quickly falls in love with him. The single piece in this concert I found unconvincing was the “shipwreck” piece, Laevamäng (Ship Game), by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (b. 1930). Secondarily its repetition and minimalism became problematic, but primarily its lack of specificity of subject; Guard’s notes admirably stated that his interpretation differed from Sheehan’s as to whether the music depicted the ship being wrecked on the surface or its descent to a watery grave after foundering. This listener found it difficult to fix on either interpretation as the text seemed to include both. The next work, a Swedish cowherding folksong I-i-o-hi-ho, served as a vehicle for the beauty of the mermaid’s voice: the price for obtaining a spell from the sea witch to transform the mermaid into a human. The uncredited soprano soloist offered beautiful vocalises and conveyed longing to be reunited with her love. A second selection by Jaako Mäntyjärvi, Double, Double Toil and Trouble (Shakespeare’s Macbeth), a delectable bit of grotesquerie, found the full ensemble employing wicked witch nasality for a time and reveling in enumerating the ghastly ingredients in the witch’s brew.
Though the mermaid does manage to reunite with the prince, she is now unable to win his love due to her voiceless condition. The Court Song from Leonard Bernstein’s incidental music to The Lark was an odd but not misbegotten choice here. The words are those of a woman at a royal court warning her husband that she has a secret lover—the antithesis of the mermaid’s one faithful, unwavering love except for the common element of secrecy. The music, though, is an engaging suggestion of a courtly Renaissance dance as seen through a 20th-century composer’s eyes. The mute protagonist reaches the peak of her emotional conflict when the prince decides to marry a beautiful princess.
A second piece by Veljo Tormis, Laevas lauldakse (Singing Aboard Ship) featured the same technique of repetition as the earlier one but now used it to suggest the mermaid’s increasingly monomania. The climax depicted the moment when her mermaid sisters give her a dagger with instructions from the sea witch to kill the rival princess in order to marry the prince, but the piece ends calmly as though she has resolved her conflict. And indeed, she next flings the dagger into the ocean, sacrificing her life rather than kill another, even a love-rival. The final selection, Morten Lauridsen’s Soneto de la Noche, began behind Walker’s narration. Though entitled a “Night Sonnet,” Lauridsen’s trademark iridescent harmonies do conjure up the image of sunrise as well as the unearthly beautiful figures the mermaid encounters as she rises through the sky. In this atypical fairy tale conclusion, Andersen celebrates selfless love and sacrifice for the greater good even though it demands the death of his protagonist. Skylark left the audience basking in the warm glow of eternal celestial bliss.
This performance took a promising step toward establishing a new type of choral programming. Benedict Sheehan’s interstitial music bridged gaps smoothly and made some effective transitions of mood, key, and style between some very different choral works, though it did not work consistently and perhaps didn’t need to be employed so consistently. With one or two exceptions, the chosen choral works fit neatly into the two stories well and enhanced them in a manner not unlike the partnership of recitative and aria found in most operas: recitatives to tell the story, and arias to reflect on or emotionally react to a particular point in the story. Sarah Walker and Skylark, under Matthew Guard’s knowing direction, revealed their gifts as storytellers in this partnership.
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. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.