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Pride and Courage

March 3, 2009


Holding aloft its dedication and musicianship like a banner, Artistic Director Robert Geary led the Volti chamber choir through eight contemporary works Saturday evening, four of which were premieres. The program, at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, also included the services of the amazing Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir.

Geary opened with Frank Ferko’s Two Hildegard Motets (1992/93), the premiere of Mark Winges’ three-movement The Assembling Landscape, and also the premiere of Ruby Fulton’s The Ballad of James Parry. Following intermission, we heard two compositions by Finnish composer Pekka Kostiainen, Jaakobin pojat (Jacob’s Sons, 1983) and Revontulet (Northern Lights, 1976), before Elliot Gyger’s Dancing in the Wind (2007), and then yet another premiere, Eric Moe’s The Crowds Cheered As Gloom Galloped Away. There was no encore.

Ferko set the texts of two motet poems by Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the supergenius of the 12th century. She was a major composer, poet, linguist, and advisor to kings, emperors, and popes. While her two motets — O factura Deo (O God’s handiwork) and O verbum Patris (O word of the Father) — were originally vocal works, unfortunately only the texts have survived. Hence, Ferko’s setting returned these two devout poems to musical performance reality.

To my surprise, he was able to write music worthy of the poems using very modern techniques. O God’s Handiwork used soft-core clusters as a kind of background drone of resonance under solo lines to create a feeling of great calm. While advanced, the music remained essentially tonal.

Much the same applied to Ferko’s second motet. Each used double choirs of both Volti and the Piedmont children’s choir. I found both motets moving and lovingly performed. As it happened, the kids sang entirely from memory, though the grownups had to read from scores. It was brilliant stuff, which deserved bravos and ought to receive multiple performances; I’d love to hear it again.

Winges’ Assembling Landscape used a lot of vocal percussive effects: tongue clicks, shouts, squeals, simply exhaling air, or bits of spoken words mixed amid the singing. Harmonically, we were into mild cluster territory again. The main problem with the piece was that it dragged on and on for far too long. Vocal gimmicks couldn’t save it from its own tedium.

Challenging Condition

Fulton’s Ballad is based on a real person, James Parry, with a highly unusual condition: He can’t recognize people’s faces. That’s utterly new to me. Parry is, however, an ardent blogger who apparently has a considerable Internet following — or so the program notes inform us. Fulton’s text was written by a friend of hers, Jeff Brunell.

As to the music, that was one of the few lively compositions on the program. Fulton used a mildly jazzy gigue rhythm and leans toward the minimalist style. But she did this without going overboard. Much of her texture is ostinato running-in-place, occasionally interrupted by spoken phrases. The Ballad sounded pretty much like a student effort to me, which is understandable, considering that the composer is currently working on her doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory.

Both of Kostiainen’s pieces are major additions to choral literature. Jacob’s Sons is a short catalog of the Biblical Jacob’s dozen sons, gone over a few times. That would appear to be deadly, but the composer manages to create a fascinating texture. He used some of the current standard textures — shouting, spoken bits, drones, and all that. Yet this dignified piece never slipped into the mundane.

His Northern Lights continued much of that quality, except for the lively tempo and assorted humorous effects. Some of the sonic effects painted visual imitations of the text as the chorus mimed in unison. For example, when the text mentions clouds fading away into the dark, the singers gradually bend way over, then down to the floor. That, however, was merely charming, never in poor taste. No wonder the work has become something of a classic.

Kostiainen’s creations were sung by the Children’s Choir in Finnish and from memory. As it happened, the person accompanying me to the concert knows Finnish and expressed her surprise at the choir’s excellent enunciation of that language. The Piedmont district of Oakland, which is not exactly steeped in the culture of Finland, can be proud of its teen music marvels. And as to quality, the choir has been invited to perform these same pieces in Finland next summer, under the composer’s direction.

Words in Isolation

Only the third movement of Australian Gyger’s Dancing in the Wind was a premiere on Saturday. It is set for double children’s choir and an adult choir. Geary had the adults before him, with the teens divided into the extreme right and left aisles alongside the audience

It’s a highly dramatic work, on a challenging poem of Vincente Huidobo. The curious factor here was that the words are all in Spanish gibberish — “Ai, aia, aia/Tralali …” and such. It’s the isolated words that are supposed to convey some sort of meaning, rather than language set out in phrases, sentences, or paragraphs.

This too was a Volti commission, but the ensemble had already premiered the first two sections during its 2007 season. Musically, Gyger employed very complex interwoven textures vaguely beholden to Ligeti’s manner. As he pitted one choir against the others, director Geary’s skill in keeping all this well-proportioned left me filled with admiration. But even more astounding, the teens kept to their parts, seemingly perfectly, and again all from memory — words, pitch, counterpoint, the whole works.

Finally, there was Moe’s The Crowd Cheered piece. A composition professor at the University of Pittsburgh, he is also an accomplished pianist who has recorded a large amount of modern music for five labels.

Moe set a long-winded prose text by Matthea Harvey, one with poetic inferences. Basically, the text is an abstract probe into gloom; for example, “But where did all the sadness go? People want to know.” Moe set this in a too-predictable manner, with the expected antiphonal effects, finger snapping, and all that. It all struck me as too academic by half, “correct” rather than inspired. After the brilliance of the Ferko, Kostiainen, and Gyger works, it did not seem to have much to contribute to the evening.

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.