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Varied Styles Embraced

February 27, 2005

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By Loretta Notareschi

Sunday afternoon's concert of the Cantare Chorale and the Coro Hispano de San Francisco brought together two well-established Bay Area choirs into a concert program of multiple American repertories. With music from Canada to Argentina, diversity was the watchword of the program.

Before intermission, the choirs performed separately, with the Cantare Chorale covering the northern half of the Americas and the Coro Hispano, the southern. Cantare's group of almost 90 singers had a mostly pleasing, though at times rather breathy and bland, sound, which they applied to the music with varying levels of success. The performances of “Long Time Ago” (in an Aaron Copland/Irving Fine adaptation) and ”Shenandoah” (arranged by James Erb) were notable for their good ensemble, clean tempo transitions, and shimmering final cadences. “How Can I Keep From Singing” (in a simple but effective arrangement by Ronald Staheli) was special because of the finely tuned close harmonies in the fourth stanza and exciting, confident dynamic shifts in the sixth and seventh.

Pianist John Glennon, who played on the Copland/Glenn Koponen arrangement of “Zion's Walls,” ”Long Time Ago,” and the Donald Patriquin arrangement of the Canadian tune “Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” was mostly solid in his accompaniment, though his introduction to the normally exciting “Zion's Walls” was surprisingly insipid. Throughout this piece, in fact, his tempo lagged a hair behind that of conductor David Morales.

Coro Hispano

Given the acoustic challenges posed by the Mission Dolores Basilica, whose cavernous spaces seemed to swallow up more than reflect the sound of the choirs, the Cantare Chorale's diction was remarkable. In particular, the words rang through clearly, with crisp consonants and resonant American vowels, in “Zion's Walls” and “My Soul's Been Anchored” (arranged by Moses Hogan). The acoustics of the space were the most problematic during the wordy “Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” when the singers seemed to struggle to keep up the lively tempo. Neither was the space particularly generous to the soprano section, whose already pale, swallowed timbre was occasionally lost in space.

The acoustics also challenged the 30-member Coro Hispano de San Francisco, performing with the instrumental ensemble Conjunto Nuevo Mundo in the second part of the program. While tenor and baritone soloists Victor Floyd and John Kendall Bailey's voices rang out with verve and clarity in Juan Gutierrez de Padilla's “¡Ay! Qué Chacota,” the female voices of the choir were occasionally hard to hear, in part due to the competition from the instrumental ensemble, while the tenor section was disproportionately loud. The group achieved a more pleasing blend in director Juan Pedro Gaffney Rivera's arrangement of “Cántico Del Alba,” an anonymous 17th c. California mission song. Here, tenor soloist Douglas Mandell's powerful sound was occasionally overwhelmed by his own vibrato, though his energy and presence pleasingly propelled the call and response format of this waking song forward.

The highlight of the Coro Hispano's portion of the program was the simple “Haku Pastor P'rilla Puriiy Pastorllay,” director Rivera's arrangement of two Peruvian folk melodies. Sung exclusively by the women of the group, who perhaps deliberately modified their sound to a more naïve, girlish timbre here, the arrangement featured low drums (meant to sound like Andean tenor drums), recorders, and a high-pitched bell played with a drumstick against the charming melodies.

Joint effort

After intermission, the Cantare Chorale and the Coro Hispano came together to perform Ariel Ram“rez' brief but effective “Misa Criolla” (1964), in an arrangement by Padre Jesús Gabriel Segade. Unlike the first half of the program, which was of uneven quality, this was focused and brilliant. Soloists Victor Floyd and John Kendall Bailey especially shone, and their energy and passion provided an aural focal point for the rest of the singers throughout the work's five movements. (I did find myself longing, however, for the soloists to be amplified, since the acoustic required them to oversing on occasion in order to be heard.)

The ”Kyrie” of the mass was infused with a warm sound from the humming of the massed singers against the finely balanced and well tuned soloists. The choirs held together solidly throughout the difficult hemiola rhythms of the ”Credo,” a particularly impressive feat given the large number of singers. I was moved to chills by Bailey's performance during the ”Agnus Dei,” especially at the section "Cordero de Dios que quitas los pecados del mundo" (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world). His sound here was as centered and well tuned as it was expressive.

The best part of the Misa Criolla, however, was the ”Gloria.” To the gratification of the audience, the choirs performed this movement again as an encore at the end of the program. This especially vivid setting of the traditional "Glory to God in the highest" text was brought to brilliant life by the call and response of the soloists and choir in the first and third sections of the movement. During the second section, an expressive "Yaravi" (an elegiac Andean genre), the entire sanctuary of listeners was transfixed, with several members of the audience straining their necks to see Victor Floyd, the source of some polished, expressive singing. The performance of the movement went especially well in the encore, during which some listeners were literally dancing in the pews and the bass player appeared as if he were about to lift off the ground from sheer joy.

(Loretta Notareschi is a composer, singer, teacher, and doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.)

©2005 Loretta Notareschi, all rights reserved