Cantate Chamber Singers offer a mixed bag of contemporary music

Mon Mar 20, 2023 at 12:28 pm

Victoria Gau conducted the Cantate Chamber Singers Sunday evening at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.

Victoria Gau and the Cantate Chamber Singers performed a concert of music created entirely by contemporary composers this weekend. New or otherwise rarely heard music is always thrilling to hear, but such programs tend to be uneven in quality as not everything recent can measure up to the classics. Such was the case at Cantate’s concert Sunday evening at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.

Rearranging the order of the pieces from the printed program, Gau put the stronger selections on the first half. Michael Bussewitz-Quarm’s I’ll Fly Away situated the melody (not that of the familiar hymn), over a multi-metric ostinato in the lower parts. Although Gau’s beat was meticulously clear, there was some lack of cohesion in the women in the first section, but the ensemble came together better in its sense of agitation in the face of loss, later in the piece.

Victoria Bond’s How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place proved the high point of the evening, with its wide-ranging stylistic variety from contrapuntal complexity to ecstatic repetition, and ending on a Brahmsian pedal point. Bond included some of the Hebrew text of Psalm 84, along with her own selective English adaptation, giving the work a feeling of spontaneity. Andrew Earle Simpson accompanied skillfully on the organ, seated at the console well behind the choir.

A close second was the curious Seven Songs of the Rubaiyat by Adolphus Hailstork. The composer described it as an attempt to write a series of short pieces each on a different scale, often exotic. On quatrains by Persian poet Omar Khayyam, in the loose translation by Edward FitzGerald, the piece posed intonation problems for the small chorus, especially when loud dynamics forced the sopranos into a more strident sound. Bass Gene Stromecki sang sensitively on the brief solo part in the sixth song, weakening a bit towards the end.

The second half consisted of two longer sets of songs in the saccharine, anodyne style that has become prevalent in American choral music. Eric Whitacre set his Five Hebrew Love Songs to Hebrew poetry by soprano Hila Plitmann, who is also the composer’s ex-wife. The sopranos stumbled in the opening of the first song, “A Picture,” but Gau patiently put the performance back on track, coordinating with the versatile Simpson at the piano.

Cantate’s tenors and basses, outnumbered by the larger soprano and alto sections, made a lyrical sound on the tender melody of the second song, “Light Bride.” The women gave a joyous buoyancy to the periodic refrain, marked by the folksy accompaniment of tambourine. Violinist Jeffrey Thurston added further color to the mix in generally pleasing melodic touches, tinged with modal wistfulness.

Whitacre’s disjunct melody in the third song, “Mostly,” proved awkward for the soprano section, as it went rather high and jagged in contour. On the soprano solo in the fourth song, “What Snow,” Ellen Kliman recited some words and then floated the vocalise line with quiet warmth. The accompaniment of droned fifths (“Tum ta tum”) in the last song, “Tenderness,” were reminiscent of the Christmas favorite “Little Drummer Boy.”

This left the longest work, Gwyneth Walker’s An Hour to Dance, for last. Now 75, Walker composed this set of seven SATB songs in 1997, using the new collection of poetry by Virginia Hamilton Adair called Ants on the Melon. Walker selected poems from that book that reflected the arc of the poet’s life from childhood to old age. The twee earnestness of the words felt of a piece with the sentimental neo-romantic harmony of the music.

Walker turned ill-advisedly toward boogie-woogie hints in the second song, “Summary by the Pawns,” complete with some show-biz choir moves from choir members, who mimicked the plodding forward movement of the titular chess pieces. The group’s best choral sounds came at softer dynamics, as in the third song, “April Lovers,” where the treble-heavy distribution of the choir evened out to positive effect.

Gau and her singers brought this challenging work off convincingly, but not without more scattered lack of ensemble and some errant piano accompaniment. The final song, “Take My Hand, Anna K.,” involved the singers imitating the hissing and clacking of a train, used by the poet as a metaphor for the imminent departure of death.

Cantate Concert Choir and the Montgomery College Chorus perform Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace 5 p.m. April 16.

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