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CHORAL MUSIC REVIEW

Never Sitting Still

February 19, 2006

Eric Lindsay


Eric Moe

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By Jules Langert

Volti's strong program of four a cappella choral pieces kept the juices flowing and left the audience intrigued, delighted, and maybe even bowled over by the close of Sunday afternoon's concert, although the always too live acoustics of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley occasionally swallowed up some of the words. If Volti has a flaw, it may be in the clarity of the singers' diction, which is better than that of many choruses, but could be better still, given the complex nature of the group's repertoire.

The concert opened with the first performance of 25-year-old Los Angeles composer Eric Lindsay's Sound Explanations (2005), a project of Volti's Choral Arts Laboratory, which seeks out young, gifted composers to work with the ensemble in writing pieces that are then, like this one, performed upon completion. Lindsay assembled his text from the first printed instructions for the board game Monopoly, which came out in 1935. Fantasies of wealth and prosperity engendered by the game were keys to its success during the Depression Era, and probably to its continuing popularity today. It has become "the leading proprietary game not only in the U.S., but throughout the Western world", and has been distributed "in 25 countries and 15 languages."

The music begins with avid, excited polyphony, as the rules for bidding on properties, building houses, hotels, and acquiring cash are presented amid a flurry of exclamation points. Then the action slows considerably when the game's hurdles and difficult, decision-making moments are outlined. A livelier mood reasserts itself, but, by the end, a kind of wistful, dreamlike chorale has taken over as concepts like bankruptcy, going to jail, and "paying the price" are discussed. While the text may be read as a cautionary version of the American Dream rooted in the boom-and-bust psychology of the Depression, Lindsay's up-to-date setting makes it feel like a timeless, universal part of humanity's quests and disappointments. Fragments of several languages, and brief, disguised quotations of tunes from the 1930s, as well as speaking, whispering, and other textural enhancements, help give a mythic resonance to this piece, which is a solid triumph for Lindsay and Volti, and was received with a huge round of applause.

Next on the program came Oregonian Jacob Avshalomov's Blessings From Christopher Smart, a poignantly expressive work commissioned by Volti for this series of concerts. Smart, an 18th century English devotional poet known for his beautiful, mystical, and somewhat deranged-sounding verse, wrote a group of enigmatic, single-line meditations first published in 1939 under the title "Rejoice in the Lamb," some of which were later set by Benjamin Britten.

Bizarre, and beguiling, beauty

Avshalomov culled texts of varying moods from this collection and set them with extraordinary aptness, bringing out their often bizarre beauty and their sad, joyful, and perplexing range of emotions, while unifying them and making them cohere in a way that they often do not on the printed page. This is a masterly achievement by the 86-year-old composer, who was on hand to say something about the piece, his interesting career, and his relationship with Volti, which goes back for some years. His talk had the same kind of naturalness and unforced eloquence as his musical settings, and was a delight to hear.

Irving Fine (1914-1962), an old friend of Avshalomov's, was represented after the intermission by The Hour-Glass (1949), a setting of six poems by Ben Jonson about the passage of time and the transformation of love from its joyful onset to its sorrowing end. These are fine poems, with Jonson's powerful emotion shining through the formality of his 17th century verse. Fine's music captures much of what is best in the poetry, while maintaining a certain distance from it through the mannerisms of his own neoclassical style. The composer often seems to be moving away from neoclassicism toward a more direct, unambiguous modernism that remains incompletely realized in this work; it is a process that composers like Copland, Sessions, Carter, and Stravinsky were passing through at about the same time. As with everything else on this program, Volti's performance was illuminating.

The final work was Eric Moe's O the Flesh Is Hot But the Heart Is Cold, also a commission from Volti, and another choral gem, setting a kind of surreal fable/mordant political satire by Matthea Harvey, who was in the audience, with consummate serio/comic imagination. In one of its effects, the pseudo-country music song of the work's title is woven into the description of a dinner attended by "princesses" who exhibit blasé disappointment with the all too familiar dessert of Baked Alaska, as ominous-sounding and politically incorrect a dish as ever was put before a few spoiled girls.

(Jules Langert is a composer and teacher who resides in the East Bay.)

©2006 Jules Langert, all rights reserved