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Back to the Land

February 21, 2010

Artists Vocal Ensemble (AVE)

Wander through the meandering roads of San Francisco's Presidio National Park, pass the George Lucas Pavilion, cross the huge parade grounds where cute vehicles parry in jerky zigzags as San Franciscans learn to operate manual transmissions, and veer off on a smaller path before the main road and you will discover an antique, white barrack newly renovated as an open, two-story gallery space for the Walt Disney Family Museum. On Sunday, I had the good fortune to discover that the gallery is an ideal place to hear a chamber music or choral concert.

The gallery is equipped with parking, ample and well-maintained restrooms, a cafe, and a smiling, costumed staff. The lofty barn-shaped room's polished wood floors and solid hard walls and ceilings reflect sound, allowing natural musical resonance to flourish. The efforts of performing musicians remain unencroached upon by the far-removed, blustering racket of San Francisco's often angry streets or architectural fixtures intended to dampen sound accommodating other, more multipurpose arts. The intimate, minimally styled room, with seating for about 150 by my estimate, still retains the quirky character and dignified craftsmanship of a century-old building.

Sunday's gallery attraction was the Artists' Vocal Ensemble (AVE), a professional chamber chorus led by founding director Jonathan Dimmock. He assembled a large program called This American Land, "examining how American composers have addressed the subject of The Land." The chorus was in excellent form, though I remain dubious about the subject of the program. As musical as the concert was, the sentiments "designed to create a spiritual, intellectual, and emotional experience ... often overt in its call to contemplation and reflection" were Pollyannaish.

The capability of every chorus ultimately lies in the competence of its voices, and Dimmock has assembled a first-rate collection of well-paired singers. Expanding its recent history of smaller forces to a complement of 16 voices, AVE hasn't had the stability to develop a hallmark style, and it still bears many characteristics of an excellent pickup ensemble. That said, the singers distinguished themselves with open and mature vocal technique, innate sense of choral style, and taste. The easy vocal confidence allowed the group to secure a truly impressive and notably full sound, and AVE did not suffer from the all-too-common perils of inconsistent intonation and blend borne from incomplete vocal development.

The Everything Concert Armed with such a capable ensemble, Dimmock indulged in the temptation to use the voices as much as possible. The two-hour concert was crammed with all kinds of music, some of it redundant, some trendy or touchy-feely, such as Skinner Chavez-Melo's Mornings of Creation, a unison happening where everyone stood in a circle ringing handbells. Dimmock's attempt to board every ride in the park left even the heartiest of the singers exhausted for several deserving works in the second half.

Chief among these were composer Peter Hallock's There Is a Stream to a John Mason text, and a setting of the famous Prayer of St. Francis by the church music composer Richard Proulx, who, I was saddened to learn, died last Thursday. Proulx developed one of the most vibrant liturgical music programs in the country at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Chicago, and his congregational music, adopted by many denominations, is probably the most widely used and successful today.

Preghiera di San Francisco was the most difficult work on the program. Proulx avoided the usual buoyant approach, instead drawing out the word "dying" to an astonishing degree in seeming recognition that prayers for peace are uncertain of being answered, while confrontation, injury, hatred, and disconsolation are all too common. Like AVE's members, I could have gained more by going through it another time.

Hallock's well-crafted piece was more accessible. For years director of music at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, Peter Hallock had many opportunities to present his music as part of that church's famous Compline service. Along with AVE's performance of an arrangement of a shape-note tune by Minneapolis-based composer Carol Barnett, Hallock's Stream was the highlight of the evening.

Song of the Southwest In early music circles, authenticity is the attempt to re-create sound that would be reasonably expected by a composer. When choral musicians approach folk melodies, authenticity is not possible in such a sense and singers are asked to do something beyond acting. The danger is always that the folk tune will be amped into kitsch or that generalized ideas will drop off the edge into stereotypes.

The shame is that Judith Cloud's Three Mesa Songs are so well-written. Cloud, who coordinates the vocal program at the University of Arizona, Flagstaff, knows how to write for voices, how to construct chords allowing voices to paint colors in sound, and how to write a catchy, upbeat tune emulating Indian drums. But then there were interludes between each choral song that ruined the mood, written for bongos, Indian flute, and ... a rainstick?

Even if a Peruvian rainstick had something to do with the Southwest, Cloud would have crossed the boundaries of stylization into the territory of stereotyped pastiche. The poetry, fine singers, great composition are not enough and must yield to something off of a CD of nature sounds.

Getting the Message If Judith Cloud's need for kitsch had a silver lining, it was the invitation of flutist Blue to the concert and the welcome chance for him to perform improvisations on his collection of Native-American flutes, assisted by percussionist Katja Cooper. The flutes were very beautiful, as was Blue's huge tone. Especially impressive was a sort of double recorder allowing him to play two melodies at once. Whereas Blue merely provided New Atge ambiance in Cloud's choral trilogy, his performance of solo flute music involved some inscrutable reverential gesture. I do not know what it means, but I do not doubt its sincerity.

AVE also collaborated with another guest artist, composer David Goodman, who played one of two piano parts in his choral work Canto de esperanza. It is a testament to AVE's impeccable intonation that the switch from pure to the impure tuning of a piano came as something of a shock. Goodman said that his work, composed to a 1985 text by Daisy Zamora written in response to America's intervention in Nicaragua, sent the message, "please take back the world for our children." The piece is rhythmic and often sounds like American composers Ingram Marshall or John Adams. I got the impression this piece was too small, rather as if it was excerpted from a larger work. The thick piano texture (in addition to some balance problems) sounded reduced, as if it was trying to be some other, larger, collection of instruments.

Oddly enough, Goodman's setting of a 1985 text to save the world for our children recalls another 1985 call to do just that. AVE concluded the first half with a Haitian voodoo melody Wangol, arranged by Sten Kallman. AVE performed this ethnic-sounding music from memory, and the extra effort to commit this music to heart inspired the singers to achieve a unique level of polish and supported an impassioned and rousing solo from tenor Ed Betts.

Asking someone to actually be Haitian at this time would be cruel. We can empathize, we can identify, we can stylize, but we can't be. Most of us can't even imagine. When musicians and audiences venture into the music of other lands, they are actually expanding their own frontiers. Delivered with a plea to help Doctors Without Borders, AVE avoided turning Wangol into the regular, upbeat entertainment of Main Street. That was their greatest tribute to the resilience of the Haitian people.

Thomas Busse,, is a professional tenor.