April 17, 2011
Sanford Sings: Inspired Musical Settings
On Palm Sunday, Sanford Dole directed his eponymous Ensemble in a preview of Easter Week, at St. Gregory Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having previously performed James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words From the Cross for Good Friday, the Sanford Dole Ensemble had commissioned from Robert Kyr an Easter Vigil, On the Third Day. The two works were presented in this concert.
The Seven Last Words, attributed by several of the Gospels to Jesus as he suffered a cruel, drawn-out death, have a powerful dramatic and narrative force on their own. MacMillan adds texts from other sources to some of them, with varying degrees of success. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” morphed into “Hosanna to the Son of David” and a Tenebrae chant, “Men rose up against me and spared not my life.” Both additions did flesh out Jesus’ identity and gave context to the events set off by Palm Sunday.
“Woman, Behold Thy Son,” repeated in a series of chorales as various sections of the orchestra joined the singers, was an interesting piece of music but had little relationship to Jesus’ tender gesture of concern for his mother’s welfare as he died. Likewise, ”Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise,” uttered by two sopranos in duet, was preceded by an interesting setting of “Ecce Lignum Crucis” (Behold the wood of the cross), which had little to do with Jesus’ conversation with one of the unfortunates hanging beside him.
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) was given a powerful setting, starting in the bass voices and instruments and working its way up in pitch and volume with dramatic force. “I thirst,” many times repeated, was interlaced with a chanted and whispered Latin text contrasting life-giving water with the vinegar that was given to Jesus. Beginning and ending with potent clashing chords in the orchestra, the words “It is finished” provided a framework for a Tenebrae text, “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?” — affecting, but lacking the terse finality of “It is finished.”
The last words, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit,” were followed by a long orchestral postlude. After many expressive uses of dissonance, the work resolved into a tonal ending, except for the final soprano tones, a half-step apart. The Ensemble chorus sang with impressive conviction, accompanied by a string orchestra ably led by concertmaster Joseph Edelberg.
Creation, Death, Resurrection
Robert Kyr’s On the Third Day, in five parts, uses dissonance differently from MacMillan, often resolving into harmony. Kyr starts with the Creation story from Genesis, paired with the passage from Ezekiel that vividly describes the breath blown into dry bones. Parts 2 through 5 each include two scenes: the first, a part of the Resurrection story; the second, excerpts from Psalms and Eastern Orthodox matins. The composer has generally chosen Psalms already familiar to singers because they have inspired musical settings for centuries.
Part 2 describes the Entombment of Jesus, related by two angels in solo and duet, paired with choral cries of distress from Jonah and Psalms. Part 3 features a dialog between Pilate and two priests about guarding the tomb.
Part 4 sets the Resurrection story from Matthew. There is a great earthquake, and the women find the tomb empty and are told by an angel to spread the word. The chorus rejoices, repeating in refrain, “He is risen! Alleluia!” Part 5 sets the Resurrection story from John. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty, weeps, encounters a man she supposes to be a gardener, and discovers that he is Jesus. The last scene is one of exaltation, the chorus singing a Psalm, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Half the chorus singers gradually make their way to the back of the audience and provide, along with the orchestra, a general cacophony of strings and bells to accompany the final Alleluia.
The Ensemble chorus for this concert was made up of 24 singers, all soloists in their own right. All the sections are strong, and all the solos were well sung. Special mention should be made of tenor Kevin Gibbs as Ezekiel; Heidi Sali Moss, Ann Moss, and Tom Hart as Angels; and Heidi Waterman in two roles, as an angel and as Mary Magdalene.
Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.
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