March 4, 2012
Lionhearted Voices, Striking Strings
For those willing to renounce Sunday’s enviable sunshine, Stanford Lively Arts offered a rare program of quality new vocal music in a rare Bay Area appearance by the New York–based male vocal ensemble Lionheart and a string quartet drawn from the ACME new music group (American Contemporary Music Ensemble). The program of new sacred vocal music by Ingram Marshall and Phil Kline, rooted in American minimalism, bucked the trend of choral programs in offering new works that were both cosmopolitan and sophisticated.
The vast majority of new choral American music is essentially functional — the domain of specialty composers satisfying the needs of university, church, and community ensembles. There is nothing wrong with this, but such music rarely crosses over into more prominent professional ensembles, and it devolves into sentimentality. Composers from more rigorous academic and modernist backgrounds tend to become somewhat indulgent with their forces, and either through indifference or inexperience they write music that is uncomfortable and unnatural for singers and audiences alike.
Marshall is one of the few widely regarded contemporary composers who has devoted considerable attention to quality music for voices. In the 1990s he was a major force in promoting awareness of the unique singing style of Eastern European women’s choruses, and many of his works find inspiration in choral traditions outside the mainstream, such as early rural American psalmody. This he accomplished in a personal and attractive style that is unmistakably modern while avoiding gratuitous milking of its multiculturalism or appealing to a shallow mysticism.
Sunday’s highlight was the premiere of Marshall’s Psalmbook for male (alto, tenor, bass) ensemble and string quartet. The work, commissioned by Lively Arts, was based on six very early American psalms. Many of the best choral works of recent years (including those from David Lang and Steve Reich) are for one-on-a-part ensembles such as the six-man Lionheart. Marshall betrayed his knowledge of singing by mentioning in opening remarks how countertenors sound much higher than they actually are. The work exploited the unique sonority in a way at times quite different than his Hymnodic Delays of 1998 for mixed women’s and men’s choruses, which is based on similar musical material. His integration of string quartet and voices was masterful.
Sounds Like a Winner
Like much of Marshall’s music, Psalmbook relies on consonant dense counterpoint made easy by “pentatonic” harmonies, avoidance of foursquare phrases, telescoping repeating figures that shift in and out of phase, and a concentration on the overall mood and arc of the work rather than on individual words and phrases. Often he shifts gears at the end of psalms as if to drive home a point, my favorite being a change to a close-harmonied homophonic texture at the end of Psalm 70. Psalmbook deserves serious consideration for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.
Marshall is one of the few widely regarded contemporary composers who has devoted considerable attention to quality music for voices.
Blame it on the weather, that the Bay Area can seem cosmopolitan but not very sophisticated, Los Angeles the opposite, but New York both. Marshall’s Fog Tropes, for amplified string quartet and tape, unsurprisingly emerged as the least sophisticated on the program, written when Marshall was a Bay Area resident evoking the gray, dour sight of fog on the Bay. Several years ago, I volunteered to help teenage film students choose background music, and I often suggested this piece for its moody, unsettling feel. Written in the mid-1980s, this work predates the closely miced film music too commonly encountered in today’s cinema. One byproduct of Sunday’s concert was that the microphones clamped to the instruments also picked up the ACME quartet’s heavy breathing, lending some unintended Foley artistry to the mix. (I wonder what was troping in that fog.)
The ACME string players were uniformly young, new-music machines: flawless urban sophisticates at their finest.
The men of Lionheart sounded more vocally secure in Phil Kline’s John the Revelator, which they premiered in 2006. The ensemble passages were excellent. These men have been together for many years, and some of their voices are starting to show their age, especially in the solo singing. I wish the concert had taken place in Stanford’s Memorial Chapel, which would have eased the challenge of singing in the vocally unflattering Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The ACME string players were uniformly young, new-music machines: flawless urban sophisticates at their finest.
Klein’s 16-movement creation really consists of several good vocal works, a few mediocre ones, and a full Mass that have been tossed in a salad spinner without regard to transitions, an overall structure, or pacing. Call it downtown music. The musical ideas were all over the map, and the comments I scribbled in my program book included “Steve Reich goes belly dancing,” “80s New Wave passacaglia,” “hocket followed by yell ... a mistake?,” “neo-Poulenc buys a Gamelan,” and in regard to the movement titled “Song: The Snow Fell,” “really quite nice piece, actually.”
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