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A Mass by Committee

May 22, 2007

The pastiche choral work has a less-than-illustrious history. To my knowledge, there are only a couple of good repertory pieces to come out of such an enterprise — the Libera me from Verdi’s Requiem (composed as part of a never-premiered composite Mass by many Italian composers to commemorate the death of Rossini in 1864), and Stravinsky’s Tower of Babel (part of a 1940s Hollywood fiasco in which a string of Hollywood composers wrote an oratorio on the story of the creation and Schoenberg wrote the depiction of chaos).
For And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass, the San Francisco-based men's chorus assigned five contemporary composers a Mass movement and similarly hoped for the best. Under the circumstances, the choir's local premiere, offered Friday at San Francisco’s cavernous Grace Cathedral, achieved a surprising amount of unity.

The entire affair, lasting 80 minutes without intermission, had a rather somber atmosphere. Commissioned movements were separated on the program by Lenten motets from 16th-century Italians Andrea Gabrieli and Carlo Gesualdo. But if there was one overarching fault to the enterprise, it was the proportion of the movements: The composers assigned to the shorter Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei sections inflated their works to match the longer Gloria and Credo texts.

The best performance of the night came early in Andrea Gabrieli’s Deus, meus respice in me (My God, why hast thou forsaken me?), an oddly exuberant setting of a pathos-laden text. The men took this opportunity to sing out rather than hold back, enlivening their sound. The countertenors showed minor but consistent tuning problems, however, partially the fault of Grace Cathedral’s difficult acoustic.

Choruses always need to exaggerate diction, especially in a cathedral space. But over the years, I have noticed Chanticleer tends toward a lispy, stylized diction, making the overall sound of the group a bit too precious and effete. The chorus sings with a wet t consonant and an almost voiced s. This smooths out the sound, but it also steals a degree of earnest crispness, which can make vocal music exciting.
The "Oohs and Aahs" Have It
American composer Douglas Cuomo's Kyrie began the series of commissioned works auspiciously. The work's architectonic structure is a palindrome. Cuomo builds outward through countertenor cluster chords, unison and octave chanting over Arvo Pärt-esque oohs and hums, a well-sung tenor solo, and a more dissonant Christe section. Everything then goes backward. Cuomo’s 36-fold Kyrie managed not to seem overly long.

In lieu of the traditional Latin Gloria, Turkish-American composer Kamaran Ince opted for a fatuous New Age setting. Nader Khalili’s naively hopeful poem about peace between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Everywhere, was made more unbearable by Ince’s ability to craft English text intelligibly. The composer's music is similarly New Age — modal lines hover over "ooh/aah" cluster chords.

Arriving to the concert early to survey the texts and program notes, I was dreading the approach of Shulamit Ran’s Credo. It appeared that the Israel-born composer was going to approach this problematic movement by replacing the overly long, uninspired, and dogmatic text of the Nicene Creed with a mishmash of unrelated Jewish fragments. I was totally wrong.

The strength of Ran’s piece came from what I believe to be her model, Britten’s War Requiem. Britten’s work contrasts the ritualistic liturgical texts, sung by a choir, with soloists singing more immediate antiwar poetry by Great War participants like Robert Owen. Britten’s great strength (to paraphrase the late musicologist Philip Brett) was to realize that there are ways to make English intelligible in music, other than the use of word accents. Mutually diverse texts can be given even more meaning through their juxtaposition.

Ran’s Credo starts with the traditional Latin incipit, "I believe in God," and then launches into several minutes of counterpoint on thorny Hebrew texts. I do not understand Hebrew, but I didn’t need to. The point is to capture a feeling of liturgical ritual. As the music fades away, touching on text from the classic statement of the Jewish faith set to a rhythm familiar to anyone who has attended a Reform service, a spoken voice in English breaks the mood, reminding us of the story of Rachel Herczl, a girl of 15 who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. The contrast in language, voice, texture, and subject was arresting. Ran took the listener away from opaque dogma to the intense and personal world of someone who is trapped and persecuted for her faith.
Text-Setting With a Bite
Ran wants this text to be understood, so she moves to a homophonic English setting. The music builds, then the religious texts return, but now spoken from the perspective of an individual, and in English: "Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul." What does this mean? We don’t know. We can’t know. Perhaps this is the point of a creed: It is what a person clings to in the face of a horror that so obviously contradicts those beliefs. Ran, like a creed, offers few answers, and even more questions.

Ran's strong writing lacks the Enya-style drones and humming characteristics of many Chanticleer commissions. If Ran exhibits any failing, it is in the piece’s ending: It just peters out. I would prefer a more affirmative approach, akin to the "apotheosis" sections common to Stravinsky. She needs to counterweight the powerful writing of the work's first three quarters. In general, Ran’s conception of sound differs from the sonority that Chanticleer offered. It would be interesting to hear this piece performed by a larger 40-voice collegiate ensemble, even with a bit of cantorial vibrato.

After a performance of a Gabrieli motet that needed more spatial separation between the two semichoirs came London-born Ivan Moody’s Sanctus — a good piece that could be great. All Moody needs to do is choose a cadence in the middle and end the piece there. I imagine that Moody thought a short piece would position him badly in relation to the other composers. So to make it long enough, after a great setting of the text, he set it again and again.

Moody comes from a land where male altos are the norm, and therefore made by far the best use of Chanticleer’s sound of the evening. This composer understands the limitations of high male voices, and he uses that sound to his advantage. As in Coomb's Kyrie, Moody uses countertenor clusters, only the voicing is much superior. Moody’s music, based on Greek Orthodox chant, is solidly built. He integrated drones into a complicated texture, rather than using them as a quick-and-easy foundation for chant.
Back to the New Age
Irish composer Michael McGlynn won the evening’s competition for music that will sell well to high school choirs. The plentiful aahs and oohs would please anyone who loves Riverdance or Celtic Women. On the plus side, tenor Brian Hinman sang his cheesy solo exceptionally well.

Chanticleer's administrators made a real musical sacrifice by studio recording the program before the concerts, thus setting the work in stone. They should have allowed time for the music to sink in to the singers’ voices over several performances, for audiences to judge the music and critics to offer suggestions, and to give the composers a chance to evaluate and revise their work. With such simple strokes as cutting Moody's Sanctus in half, Chanticleer might have created a masterpiece. Instead, we’re stuck with a half-baked composite contraption, a Chanticleer mess.

Thomas Busse, www.tbusse.com, is a professional tenor.