Two premieres and a moving farewell for Becker from Cantate Chamber Singers

Sun May 19, 2019 at 1:08 pm
By Seth Arenstein

Gisèle Becker led two world premieres in her final concert with Cantate Chamber Singers Saturday night.

Gisèle Becker has directed the Cantate Chamber Singers for a quarter of a century. Several things made her final concert as music director of this fine volunteer chorus a memorable experience.

First, there was the theme of endings and beginnings that infused the program for Saturday’s concert at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Other gifts included two commissions for chorus and chamber ensemble, each written for this concert as a tribute to Becker.

While it was Becker’s night, she quickly shifted the focus to the music in her informative introductory remarks. “Commissions are every group’s responsibility,” she told the audience and, indeed, Cantate has commissioned 38 different compositions during her 25-year tenure.

While many composers are familiar with the ensembles that commission music from them, composers Maurice Saylor and Andrew Earle Simpson are intimately acquainted with Cantate. Simpson has served as the group’s keyboard artist for years and Saylor has twice been the ensemble’s composer in residence.

Part of that familiarity showed in the composers’ choice of instrumental forces; both premieres were scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, percussion, harp, two violins, viola, cello and double bass.

Simpson’s It Is Time, in three movements, sets music to poems about beginnings and endings by Roberto Ifill, Becker’s husband. “The Sense of an Ending,” the first movement, begins with a haunting instrumental melody in G minor. The music permeates the composition, with variations on it heard in all three movements, though the chorus never sings the theme.

Under Becker’s direction, the work was performed with sensitivity and control. Notable was Simpson’s writing for the wind trio and percussion, which performed his tone colorings with precision and emotion.

While Becker’s shaping of vocal phrasing was effective, her singers’ diction occasionally disappointed, particularly when singing at full strength. It’s possible that the acoustic of St. John’s Episcopal Church was partly to blame, coupled with Simpson’s complex and challenging score, whose difficulties he alluded to during the preconcert on-stage discussion. Still, distinguishing words was troublesome too much of the time.

Despite the diction issues and some intonation problems, the singing was strong and well shaped. The second movement, “La fin est le commencement” (The end is the beginning), scored for double chorus and two conductors, provided more memories. Incoming Cantate music director Victoria Gau joined Becker on the podium to lead the second chorus and a portion of the instrumentalists. Not only was the complex music executed well, it provided a nice visual representation of a passing of the baton.

The second half began with three selections from Irving Fine’s From The Hour-Glass for unaccompanied chorus, and here Cantate sounded like a different group entirely. Fine’s harmonies were sung with full-voiced commitment and the ensemble was crisper. His setting of Ben Jonson’s “Have You Seen The White Lily Grow” showed Cantate at its best.

The second premiere, Saylor’s The Habit of Creation, sets six of his poems to music. Featuring excellent instrumental writing, it’s a gem that contained numerous opportunities for Cantate to display its talent. “Our Creative Habit,” showed Cantate’s powerful unison, and  “The Joy of the Dream Supreme and Worthy,” ended with a gorgeous a cappella passage. The lullaby “Man’s Hands” was a treat, with Kevin Frey soloing over the chorus.

“All Creative Work Builds On What Came Before,” is a foot tapper with a humorous ending, its title and text offering thanks to artistic pioneers. As such, Saylor emphasized echoes in the chorus and the instrumental ensemble.

While the entire composition was a tribute to Becker, its final movement, “Nothing Owned, Merely Cared For,” aptly captured the modest pride the choral director has exhibited during her career.

Becker’s conducting of the movement emphasized its ethereal quality, with the chorus uttering “ah” for an extended period. Yet the effect was full, not fulsome. The crowd reacted with boisterous applause, recalling Becker to the stage four times. It was a fitting ending for Becker and, one hopes, an equally promising beginning for the next chapter of Cantate Chamber Singers.

 


One Response to “Two premieres and a moving farewell for Becker from Cantate Chamber Singers”

  1. Posted May 19, 2019 at 6:01 pm by Marty Last

    The reviewer accurately desribes a fitting tribute Saturday for 25 seasons of excellence. The warmth and affection for Gisele Becker by singers, audience and friends that evening is beyond words.

Leave a Comment