S.F. Choral Artists: Elegant Craft

Benjamin Frandzel on June 25, 2013

Two ensembles devoted to finding new directions for their respective idioms — San Francisco Choral Artists, led by Magen Solomon, and the klezmer trio Veretski Pass — came together for an inventive and elegantly crafted concert Sunday at Oakland’s Temple Sinai. Organized around texts and themes related to Jewish superstitions (“Omens, Dreams, and Curses,” to be precise), the program wove seven premieres into a culturally rich and musically diverse program.

Members of the S.F. Choral Artists
Members of the S.F. Choral Artists

Holding Veretski Pass to the catchall term of klezmer doesn’t really do justice to the group of virtuosic multi-instrumentalists. Their repertoire brings together Jewish and non-Jewish music from across Central and Eastern Europe, and moves the music forward with new works and arrangements that reflect both a deep absorption of tradition and a real rethinking of it. The most memorable sets of music were built around the alternation of the choral and instrumental ensembles, highlighted by a set of world premiere works by Veretski’s tsimbl (cimbalom) and accordion player Joshua Horowitz, a composer of substantial ability and invention.

Horowitz’s Viglid (Lullaby), on a Yiddish text, was beautiful and haunting. A dark harmonic palette was expanded through surprising effects such as women’s voices singing the text with wordless male voices beneath them, creating an aura of ghostly distance around the reassurance promised by the text. In another inventive bit of text setting, Kloles (Curses) was introduced by a fine but relatively traditional setting of an angry God’s curses upon the people, drawn from Deuteronomy. But this quickly gave way to a set of Yiddish curses, each condemning a different body part to a woeful fate, rapidly layered over each other to a Babel-like degree. Horowitz’s Malokhim (Angels) was a brief and darkly pretty setting of the names of seven angels, and his instrumental Forshpil (Prelude) opened the program, introducing a traditional feel that seemed just a bit off-kilter, hinting at the musical surprises to come.

These choral works were interspersed with the trio’s original takes on a set of pan-Jewish, pan-European dances and songs, providing even greater depth to the program. And the best news is that there’s more to come; Horowitz’ choral works will be incorporated into his Lilith Project, which SFCA will premiere in its entirety next May.

Solomon’s intelligent programming brought some surprising and nuanced additions to the proceedings.

Composer Mark Winges has long been a valuable presence on the Bay Area choral scene, contributing new works to the repertoire of many local ensembles, and he concluded his tenure as SFCA’s Composer in Residence with the premiere of his Scherzo Diabolique. This piece generates momentum and excitement from the start, with shifting accents inside a rhythmically propulsive framework, frequent changes in texture, and vocal effects ranging from whispers to whoops. The work is textless, but Winges chose specific vocal sounds whose varying softness or sharpness contributed much to this brief and dynamic piece.

Always looking to expand their repertoire, Solomon and the SFCA have also established a Composer Not in Residence program, looking beyond the Bay Area to give a home to worthy new compositional voices. The young American composer Eleanor Aversa has recently held this position, and completed her tenure with her contributions to this program. Both Knock on Wood and Gesundheit are charming and diverting short works, with a tongue-in- cheek call and response in the latter. With a playful take on superstition, they added some comic relief to the program, though neither was especially noteworthy otherwise.

The group’s unity of phrasing was especially praiseworthy, with crisp entrances and beautifully shaped lines across the program’s gamut of styles.

Solomon’s intelligent programming brought some surprising and nuanced additions to the proceedings. I wouldn’t think of Randall Thompson as a composer for a Jewish-themed program, but two lovely settings from the Book of Isaiah brought musical variety and enriched the program’s textual themes. Other surprises included a little-known gem by Mendelssohn, Aus tiefer Noth, a setting of Psalm 130 that reflects the influence of Bach’s choral writing. The concert’s stylistic range was further expanded with music by the little-heard Italian Jewish renaissance master Salomone Rossi, plus a gorgeous arrangement of the Sephardic tune Cuando el Rey Nimrod, by SFCA Assistant Conductor Tina Harrington.

Solomon drew a series of well-prepared and affecting performances from the chorus. The clear counterpoint between individual sections of the ensemble that was such a strong element of the singing was nicely balanced by the seamless blend that each section achieved. The group’s unity of phrasing was especially praiseworthy, with crisp entrances and beautifully shaped lines across the program’s gamut of styles. The singers also made the most of Temple Sinai’s clear, though not especially resonant, acoustics.

Along with the themes woven through the program, many other carefully chosen elements added to its richness. The pacing was well thought out, from the precise attacca transitions between the chorus and Veretski Pass to Solomon’s well-prepared spoken introductions to each set of music, marked by her insight and personal warmth. The program came to a marvelous end when Veretski Pass launched into a final set and the chorus danced their way off the stage, circling around the space and taking any willing audience members with them.