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All You Need Is Love

November 6, 2007

A substantial crowd filled St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley on Friday for the opening of Volti's 29th season. The concert, titled "Adventures in Life, Love, and Longing," presented recent works (the oldest of which was written in 1987) by six living composers, many of whom were in attendance at the performance. Four works were premieres. The evening was a pleasant reminder that the Bay Area is rich in ensembles promoting new music, and that Volti takes its place as one of the most accomplished of these ensembles.
Volti's strength lies in its carefully blended sound and its meticulous attention to detail. The ensemble produces a remarkably clean, penetrating tone, with all the parts coming together to form a single unified whole. Rhythmic ensemble was at a high level, as well, thanks to the energetic conducting of Artistic Director Robert Geary. However, the group's tight blend occasionally seemed a detriment, as the balance between melody and accompaniment was at times unsatisfactory, as was the balance in moments of extended rhythmic and melodic counterpoint. When solos emerged from the texture they were consistently beautifully delivered, but again occasionally overbalanced by the ensemble.

The intonation was superb throughout the concert, no small feat considering the challenges of the repertoire. The one disappointment in intonation came during Alan Fletcher's The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a setting of a well-known Yeats poem. The composer's masterful setting, with its reliance on close intervals and voices moving in and out of phase with one another, was marred near its close when the soprano section proved unable to sustain a delicate high passage without slipping a few notches below where they needed to be.

The concert opened with Howard Hersh's Let Evening Come, set to a poem by Jane Kenyon. A moving meditation on death, the poem is marked by a refrain on the title words, repeated four times. Hersh's decision to vastly increase the number of repetitions of this refrain — given a musical motive of a descending major second followed by a descending perfect fourth — became grating after a while and seemed excessive.

For this reviewer, Hersh's setting for the most part was a disappointment, with its syrupy-sweet harmonies and its cliched insertion of chirping noises from the choir at the lines "let the cricket take up chafing." The composer's decision to end the song with a pyramid chord, building up a major seventh chord starting with the bass note-by-note, also added to my uneasy sense that I had heard this all before somewhere.
Power of the Poem
Following the Hersh were settings by Richard Festinger, titled The Locust Tree, to three poems by William Carlos Williams. The strongest of these was the second, which set two slightly different versions of the poem "The Locust Tree in Flower" side-by-side. Williams' objectivist text, with its characteristic one or two words per line, was well-matched by a syllabic text-setting that emphasized the power of each individual word of the poem. Through contrasts in color, range, and dynamics, Festinger drew my attention to the way in which each of Williams' words played a role in shaping the meaning of the poem.

Among other highlights of the evening were two works that play with references to the musical past. Stacy Garrop's setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven," part of a work titled Sonnets of Beauty and Music, takes the opening four bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and miraculously makes them sound fresh again, through the use of a hushed dynamic and rhythmic augmentation. And the longest work on the program, Morten Lauridsen's Madrigali: Six "Fire Songs" on Italian Renaissance Poems, cleverly reclothes the tropes of Renaissance madrigal writing in modern musical garb, reminding us of the many similarities between Renaissance and 20th-century musical devices.

If there was one major disappointment to the evening it was a verbal rather than a musical one. The music on the program was framed by a great deal of talking: speeches by the executive director both at the program's opening and just before the intermission, introductions of each of the six composers by members of the ensemble, and introductions by the composers themselves to the pieces the audience was about to hear. While I have nothing against mixing speech and music per se, as the evening wore on the amount of verbiage seemed grating, and drew my attention to the relative brevity of the actual musical material of the concert.

Alexander Kahn is a Ph.D. candidate in music history and literature at UC Berkeley, where his research is focused on the Hollywood émigrés. He is also the assistant conductor of the Oakland Civic and the UC Berkeley symphony orchestras.
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