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Volti: Speaking of Music

March 6, 2011


Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir are Robert Geary’s gift to creators and performers of new choral music. Their performance Sunday afternoon at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley included five works, three of them premieres and four pieces commissioned by the choirs. Volti is made up of 20 professional singers who have chosen to vault into new music and who do it very well, indeed. And the children in the top Piedmont group, called Ensemble, are remarkably well-trained.

Choral music, like all vocal music, is a mixed art. It was interesting to see how each of the composers used words in their music. The concert began with the premier performance of Tamar Diesendruck’s Other Floods, commissioned by Volti. The piece began so softly that Geary had to stop and leave the chapel to silence some competing sounds from outside. After a second beginning, the occasional punctuation by car horns outside became part of the performance. The text, poems by Giuseppe Ungaretti, consists of a mere 10 words. Diesendruck picked them apart into vowels and syllables, assigned to solo voices. Short staccato sounds become elongated tones, increasing in frequency. Then, to quote the composer’s program notes, “as the full chorus becomes involved, the fragments form larger linguistic combinations ... which ultimately become the poems.” Finally, we heard “M’illumino/D’immenso” (I am illumined by immensity). And along the way, harmonic density resolves into some lovely chordal combinations. To my taste, this was the best piece on the program — beautifully shaped and beautifully sung.

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Mark Winges’ Magic Strings, written for Ensemble and pianist Sue Bohlin in 1992, was happily assigned to this year’s Ensemble, which delivered a spirited performance. The singers’ diction was exemplary, vividly bringing to life the fantasy and color of an 8th-century poem by Li Ho (translated by A.C. Graham). Vocal special effects included humming, whistling, a falling sound half-sung and half-spoken as a fox dies, the biting nasality of a goblin’s voice, and a group scream at the end followed by a long held tone. Bohlin, in addition to providing color on the keyboard, manipulated the piano strings to make ghostly sounds, plucking, strumming, and applying a metal ruler.

Here was music that used words both for their sound and for their descriptive power — a treat for ear and eye. And it was a treat to see and hear singers who are both capable and fun-loving.

To Ted Hearne, the composer of Privilege (another recent Volti commission), words matter. Of his five short songs, two were on texts by the composer and two from an interview by Bill Moyers of David Simon; all touched on important subjects: justice, kindness, honesty, corruption, education. Yet the texts are more prosy than poetic, and the music is prosy too, often repetitive in a way that has no rhetorical force. The fifth text is a moving poem, called in program notes a traditional Xhosa anti-Apartheid song. The poem is not about an abstraction called Apartheid, or Justice. It is about a specific human event, as the singer tries to escape on a train. “O mother, it’s leaving me behind,” he cries. The words speak to us, and spoke to the composer, whose music rises to the words, using rhythm and harmony and the arrangement of voices to telling effect. And finally the singers closed their books and repeatedly sounded the lament, ending in a long, sad silence.

Kui Dong’s Painted Lights, a premiere commissioned by Volti and the Piedmont choir, has too many words. Papa and Mama sit, he reading a newspaper and she reading from Wikipedia, as the children play and sing counting games. The music is better than the talky parts. The songs are set to poems by the composer and Denise Newman, and use a lot of wordplay. The children repeat words to nice effect: fish, shine, shimmer. The placement of the adult and children’s choruses is skillful — sometimes together, sometimes distinct from each other, according to text and music.

Battle of Words

David Lang’s after stephen foster is part of a larger work, called battle hymns, a collection of songs about war, for singers and dancers, that was premiered in Philadelphia in 2009. Robert Geary is planning to present this work in San Francisco next year, using Volti, the Ensemble, and a large number of amateur singers, as well as the dancers and choreographer from the premiere. The venue in Philadelphia was an armory, and Geary is looking for a similarly site-specific space in San Francisco.

The excerpt we heard is based on three songs by Stephen Foster, to poems he wrote himself. Lang’s texts are excerpted from Foster’s. The three Foster settings were sung as prelude to Lang’s work by three of the Volti singers: “I’ll be a soldier” by Roderick Lowe, “Was my brother in the battle?” by Kirsten Brown, and “Beautiful Dreamer” by Lindsey McLennan.

Geary and the critics make much of the impact of the texts, all about war. But Lang’s music hardly seems to have anything to do with the words, except for being loud. It is true that the children sing “I’ll be a soldier” in endless repetitions, suggesting childish play — but that is not what the poem is about. There are few changes of dynamics, rhythm, or musical form. A drone in the men’s voices, on tones 1 and 5 of the scale (like a tambura in Indian music), serves as a kind of organizing principle and undoubtedly enables the singers to find their pitches when cacophony reigns.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” edited down to a series of disjointed phrases, loses the nuance of the original text, and consists mainly of long held tones, reducing the text to one meaningful word: dream.

It may be that Lang’s work can be heard to better advantage in larger sites than Trinity Chapel, which was a last-minute change of venue because of a misunderstanding about a contract. There could be more variety of sound and form in the entire work than there is in this excerpt, which unfortunately called attention to what Stephen Foster did with his words. And dancers may very well be an important expressive factor.

In any case, the concert showcased accomplished singers in stunning performances, attended by a large, appreciative audience.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.