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Youthful Voices Rise

October 28, 2008

The 30th anniversary season of the esteemed San Francisco Girls Chorus opened on Friday in Calvary Presbyterian Church. As usual, the chorus offered a terrific display of fine musicianship that traversed a complicated variety of musical styles. What else is new with this group? Even so, it was sometimes hard to fathom the precision and intonation with which these high school kids sang.

San Francisco Girls Chorus

The program may have seemed long at first glance, but when performed without an intermission it turned out to be a bit shorter than most. Conductor Susan McMane opened with David Willcocks' setting of Psalm 150 (1984), Fauré's Ave verum, Op. 65, No. 1 (1894), and Poulenc's Litanies á la Vierge noire (Litanies of the black virgin) (1936). Organist David Higgs, chairman of the Organ Department at the Eastman School of Music, then soloed with Maurice Duruflé's Toccata from his Op. 5 Suite (1933).

Back to the vocal performances, we heard the substantial Dreams, Op. 85 (1978) by the late Finnish composer Erik Bergman, David MacIntyre's Ave Maria (1994), Rachmaninov's The Angel (1895), the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas' Two E.E. Cummings Songs (2008), plus three pieces of Americana: Stephen Foster's Beautiful Dreamer, the folk hymn How Can I Keep From Singing? and the spiritual So Many Angels! To fill in for the demanded encore, McMane led I Dream a World.

Bergman (1911-2006), who taught at the Sibelius Academy, was principally interested in writing choral music, and hence is not as well-known as he deserves to be. Whereas his texts were normally set in Finnish, his three-movement Dreams presents no such challenge. That's because it contains no texts as such, only a landscape of vocal murmurs, as well as rapid, repeated vocalizations on things such as boon, zing, or pheuw, sometimes in free improvisation.

Clearly, Bergman knew of the music of John Cage and Morton Feldman, but avoided their techniques in any outright fashion. They were only his springboard. The effect of his three sections — "Echos," "Solitude," and "Restlessness" — created a magical, otherworldly aesthetic of highly original and spiritual implications. Wonderful solo episodes within the compositions were taken by Amelia De Snoo and Katherine Sommer during "Echoes," and by Sian Wittke during "Solitude." I say unto you, this is a most moving masterpiece, one worth knowing.
Gorgeous Litanies
The other masterpiece on the program was Poulenc's ultraserious Litanies, written after his pilgrimage to the religious site of Rocamadour, which happens to have a Black Madonna statue. The piece is almost painfully beautiful, especially when sung so well as by the S.F. Girls Chorus. Fauré's religious music is always lovely, of course, but while sounding so in his Ave verum, the general effect struck me as rather ordinary. It left no memorable impression.

So, too, with the Willcocks setting of Psalm 150 and MacIntyre's Ave Maria, each set to jaunty Latin American dance patterns. Canadian MacIntyre, however, broke with the traditional "Hail Mary" poem. He used only the two Latin words of the title, repeating them over and over during the full composition. I fear these are merely an effort to turn out catchy pieces for the sake of programming variety. Willcocks is best known for his long association with, and many recordings with, the King's College Singers of Cambridge University. But he's obviously no composer, only an adherer of the rules.

The oddest thing on the program turned out to be the Rachmaninov work, The Angel, for female chorus with piano accompaniment, sung in Russian. The composer's honeyed piano part is so elaborate in sonority as to be overbearing — and, let me hasten to add, that was not pianist Susan Soehner's fault. The work comes off as a piano piece accompanied by a choir: a kind of upside down texture.

The most disappointing item for me was Thomas' settings of E.E. Cummings poems: sky candy spouting violets and (kiss me). Written on commission from our Girls Chorus, the two songs are quite professional and neatly put together, as I would expect from such a well-known composer. Yet I sensed nothing much in the way of personality in them. They were simply there, giving out neither offense nor any pleasurable freshness. I suspect that Thomas felt a little inhibited by fears for what kids can accomplish, though in the case of this chorus she needn't have.

Of the three traditional American tunes performed, How Can I Keep From Singing? was the most effective because of its simple, direct arrangement by Karen P. Thomas. Each of the other two was embedded in sentimentalized, Romantic goo. In the case of So Many Angels! the performance was further hampered by a constant use of hand gestures, as designed by Brian Fisher. Alack, this wasn't a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta excerpt.
It's All in the Keys
Duruflé's music has always struck me as music that only organists can love. There's a lot of flashy keyboard work, true, but the absence of melodic invention glares. The only thing of his to gain repertoire status is his setting of the Requiem. But even there he was merely arranging all the original Gregorian chants. Melodically, there's nothing of his own in it, nor is there much beyond a flurry of notes to be heard in his Toccata.

David Higgs holds a considerable international reputation, and regularly plays at the dedication ceremonies for major new organs. For this program he accompanied Willcocks' Psalm 150, as well as performing Duruflé's Toccata. I was much surprised to hear him badly misjudge the acoustics of Calvary Presbyterian. It's a normal-size church, not a cathedral, and hence relatively compact. To let loose with the organ's full power during climaxes created dins that came perilously close to the threshold of pain.

Which reminded me of a news item heard something like 40 years ago. Some reporter picked the text of a UN speech out of the garbage, and found a penciled trope in the margin: "Weak point — shout!" That attitude may have been Higgs' way of trying to sell essentially weak music. Of course, that's just a guess.

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.