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The New Choir on the Block

June 5, 2007

One of the most individual aspects of music in the Bay Area is the incredible number of choral organizations and the variety of repertoire they offer. As of Saturday evening in San Francisco's Trinity Episcopal Church, that pleasure was increased as Richard Sparks directed the premiere concert of Choralis. The choir of 17 experienced singers sang what amounted to a musical name card: a declaration of intent. The program opened with six short works: Javier Busto's setting of the Pater noster, sung in procession onto the altar platform. Then came Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus, Randall Thompson's Felices ter, a Kyrie by Josef Rheinberger, Johann Kuhnau's Tristis est anima mea, and Anton Bruckner's Os justi. Afterward came a highlight, the local premiere of the young Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's small cantata, Canticum Calamitatis Maritmae (Song of a maritime calamity). The program rounded off with John Rutter's Hymn to the Creator of Light, and two settings of O nata lux — one each by Thomas Tallis and Morten Lauridsen. That's a long list, but the performances took but an hour. Enthusiastic applause brought forth one encore: a choral arrangement of Henry Purcell's famous passacaglia, Music for Awhile.
Members of the chorus are drawn from assorted other Bay Area vocal ensembles, and indeed most of the best-known ones. Choralis' balances, musicality of phrasing, and dulcet timbres were first-rate under the experienced Richard Sparks. Sparks is an American who has made a distinguished career, largely in Canada, Seattle, and Sweden. Both in terms of programming and directing, I found his contribution most impressive. It all amounted to a memorable concert experience.

There was so much interesting and unusual music that this reviewer hardly knows where to begin. Easily the most fascinating piece was Mäntyjärvi's memorial to a historical tragedy, the wreck of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea in 1994. Caught in a storm while sailing from Estonia to Sweden, 852 lives were lost.

Set in Latin, the piece opened with a lyrical solo, a setting of the "May eternal light shine'' prayer from the Requiem Mass. Then came the text of a newscast broadcast over Finnish radio, in Latin. (Latin is so widespread in Finland that once a week an entire newscast is broadcast entirely in the language.) The news section was followed by a large segment of Psalm 107, "They that go down to the sea in ship," also in Latin, and finally a Lux aeterna (Eternal light), performed as from a great distance. The total was moving.

About the only thing in the way of comparison I can think of would be the larger Monteverdi madrigals. The music, while utterly modern, never wandered into extremes of radicalism. Over a tonal foundation, a considerable variety of textures emerged: soloists quietly soaring over soft drones, delicate contrapuntal sections, snippets of whispering words. Best of all, Mäntyjärvi avoided shabby shouting climaxes. His subject was too grieving for that sort of melodramatics.
Spotlighting Neglected Composers
Both of the Baroque motets offered a fresh glimpse into the world of two unduly neglected composers: the Venetian Lotti and Bach's predecessor in Leipzig, Kuhnau. Both were famed in their day, each holding important church posts — St. Mark's in Venice, St. Thomas in Leipzig respectively — and each became important teachers. In Lotti's case, his students included Benedetto Marcello and Baldassare Galuppi. He composed both sacred and secular music, including operas. Clearly, this was a technically polished composer with an elegant feeling for melody. That also applied to Kuhnau, although I had not realized he'd written vocal music, since his fame, such that it is, rests on his keyboard works. They deserve more frequent performances.

As to the Romantics, we heard first the rich Brahmsian sonorities of Liechtenstein's greatest composer, Joseph Rheinberger. Rheinberger moved to Munich as a student, liked it, and stayed on as a singularly important conductor, organist, choir director, and teacher — in the latter capacity, as teacher of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Engelbert Humperdinck, the composer of Hansel und Gretel.

Yet the only Rheinberger still in the repertory these days are his two organ concertos, which is a pity. There's no shortage of excellent music by him. It may not be particularly individual, but his work does contain the power to please.

And then there was the elevated devotional of Bruckner's ode to God's justice, replete with a final Alleluia. Here was music of the most seriously devout sort, something that fascinated the ear with its breadth of expression. Rarely will you encounter a piece so utterly devoid of personal ego yet brimming with melodic strength.

Of the other modern works, I found Lauridsen's O nata lux (O light born) for double choir fully accomplished and enjoyable, as serious in its way as the Bruckner. Born in Colfax, Wash., and raised in Portland, Lauridsen gained a wide and justified following as a choral composer, even serving as composer-in-residence to the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994 to 2001. His piece sounded like music of our time, without going overboard into the world of gimmicks.

So, too, Busto's setting of the Lord's Prayer, which was tonal without sounding the least bit hackneyed. I wish I could mention more about him, but the program had nothing. My music dictionaries don't either, and the Internet mentions briefly that he was born in the Basque region of Spain in 1949 and is an active choral conductor and composer.

By contrast, Thompson's Felices ter (Happy they), while not unpleasant, sounded like little more than that. He wrote more gratifying music than this, which amounts to musical running in place. Rutter is popular with singers, but rarely makes an impression on audiences. Color them bland.

To jump back to the 16th century, Tallis' setting of the O nata lux is a little masterpiece that's instinctually impressive. It scores masterfully right from the quiet opening. That he's not better known to the general public is a minor tragedy, for he was one of the super composers, a thing that shows through in even short compositions like the O nata lux. To hear a Tallis piece is to love it as much as anything in Mozart. Bravo Choralis for presenting this.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.