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The New Cantabile

June 12, 2007

The Cantabile Chorale has a new sound. Some aspects of this hold great promise, while other aspects suggest areas that could do with some ironing out. Friday night's concert at St. Gregory Nyssa in San Francisco, titled "Bach, Beatles, and Beyond," demonstrated this ably. The program was constructed to be eclectic, continuing a cycle of Bach motets with the well-beloved Jesu, meine Freude; offering 20th-century German composer Siegfried Strohbach's setting of five poems from the folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn; premiering a work by the chorale's artistic director, Sanford Dole; and ending with arrangements created for the King's Singers of classic Beatles songs (the first time that the chorale has performed popular music). Fortuitously for Cantabile's singers, each successive piece brought out more of the ensemble's strengths, and the group really hit its stride at the end of the concert, in the Beatles set.
In previous seasons the Cantabile Chorale has also performed works by Bach, Strohbach, and Dole, so presumably it is at least somewhat comfortable with those composers' musical idioms. Yet this is the first time that the ensemble has tackled these styles since it became the roughly 40-voice group that it consists of today.

The Cantabile Chorale, some 80 members strong, formerly was made up mostly of singers from Berkeley and Palo Alto. At the end of last season, the group decided to split into two, leaving the Palo Alto singers to carry on under the name Cantabile Chorale, while the East Bay singers formed a separate group, Chora Nova, under Director Paul Flight.

My sense on Friday night was that Cantabile was struggling a little with its new, reduced size and new sound, despite its having presented a full season in its new guise.
Effective Work by the Artistic Director
The entire program offered astute direction from Dole, who shows a sensitivity to the drama inherent in and appropriate to each of the individual pieces. Yet even though Cantabile's singers followed his direction assiduously, the result frequently sounded as though it was accomplished without deep conviction. In the Bach motet, for example, the defiance called for in the fifth movement, "Trotz dem alten Drachen," was presented with volume and crispness, though without a sense of urgency.

Likewise, in the first of the Strohbach pieces, the energy of the singing matched the text and the setting, but what was missing was the sense that the singers truly understood and believed the emotions that they were trying to convey.

The other major challenge that the ensemble faced was intonation. With the exception of the basses, who consistently sang with confidence and a rich, round tone, the singers seemed to be pushing their sound. I suspect that this stemmed from an unconscious sense of needing to sound more like they did when they had twice as many voices. But sadly, this exacerbated the difficulties that the sopranos were having in their upper registers, from time to time made the altos sound forced, and challenged the blend among the tenors.

In contrast, when the group sang with a lighter approach, as in the "Ich aber seid nicht fleischlich" movement of the Bach or the "la la la" refrains in the final Strohbach piece, both tuning and affect were vastly improved — and the beauty or drama of the music suddenly and vividly appeared.

The chorale seemed more at ease in Dole's new work, Invitation to a Voyage, a setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's English translation of a poem by Charles Baudelaire, L'Iinvitation au voyage. Dole set the poem's three stanzas with similar techniques and melodies, yet created subtle differences that highlighted the text's varying moods. The harmonic language overall was lush and sensuous, building to rich climaxes each time in the second half of the refrain. The singers delivered a full, rich sound in this piece, with stand-out moments at the second verse "in that amber-scented calm" and in the final sumptuous setting of "luxury and voluptuousness."
Rollicking Rendition of Beatles Hits
The character that the ensemble had begun to display in Strohbach's Wunderhorn songs and that reappeared in the refrains of Dole's Invitation burst into full flower in the Beatles arrangements. From the moment the set began, it seemed as if another chorale altogether had appeared. The singers looked like they were enjoying the music and the performance, they seemed at ease with their parts, they tuned well, they clearly felt the rhythmic impulse of the music — and all of this let them connect much more intimately with their audience.

Special praise goes to the entire tenor section in And I Love Her, to Hal Sundquist for his solo in Honey Pie, to Márya Maddox for her solo whistling in Blackbird, and to Dole himself, who emerged to conduct this set dressed as George Harrison on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band — in honor of the 40th anniversary, on June 1, of the album's release.

For the revamped and smaller Cantabile Chorale, this proved to be far and away the highlight of the evening.

Kaneez Munjee is a singer, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University, and specializes in late 17th- and early 18th-century French music.