Monday, May 20, 2019

Cantori New York - The Tower and the Garden - 05/12/19

Music Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Charles Villiers Stanford: Three Motets, Op. 38 
Gerard Victory: Selections from Seven Songs of Experience
The Little Vagabond (Soloist: Ben Keiper)
The Sunflower: (Soloist: Eleanor Killiam)
The Human Abstract
The Fly
The Tyger (Soloist: Jessie Douglas) 
Gregory Spears: The Tower and the Garden 
Gregory Cardi: Violin 
Ari Evan: Cello 
Gergana Haralampieva: Violin 
Meagan Turner: Viola 

My 2018-2019 music season obviously could not be complete without one last taste of quintessential New York choir Cantori New York, even if, beside the old with Three Motets by Charles Villiers Stanford and the brand new with the New York premiere of The Tower and the Garden by Gregory Spears, they would also serve us re-heated (Say what?!), but admittedly still appetizing, selected pieces from Seven Songs of Experience by Gerard Victory, back from their 2017-2018 season.
Although Saturday had been a simply perfect spring day (It does not get much better than 70 degrees, crisp and sunny), Sunday started with low temperatures and pouring rain, and did not improve much over time. It would therefore have been the ideal day to hang around my apartment with hot chocolate and my frustratingly high pile of New Yorkers, but adventurous choral music had to be supported. So in the afternoon I reluctantly trudged down to the Village’s Church of St. Luke in the Fields armed with tissues, water and Ricolas to make sure to be able to keep my by then full-blown cold in check.
The church was surprisingly crowded for such a miserable day, which also happened to be Mother’s Day, and bumping into old and new, expected and unexpected friends was a nice perk. And if I had needed extra motivation beside good music and good friends, the opportunity of stealing a few hours away from my electric guitar-practicing neighbor would have made the expedition total worth it anyway.

There can hardly be a more relevant topic than doing the right thing these days, and Charles Villiers Stanford’s Three Motets, one of the Irish composer’s greatest choral hits, felt right at home in the church on Sunday afternoon. In the best tradition of English Romantic music, it quickly filled the space with attractive tapestries of Latin text, flowing melodies and delicate harmonies.
With its wide range of themes and genres, not to mention endless supply of humor and warmth, the five excerpts from Gerard Victory’s Seven Songs of Experience sounded as good of a choice as any for a repeat performance. And sure enough, the heretical mischievousness of “The Little Vagabond”, the gorgeous bloom of “The Sun flower”, the quiet existential angst of “The Fly”, the innate coolness of “The Human Abstract”, and the all-out ferociousness of the opening of “The Tyger” all worked their magic again.
After intermission, the second part of the concert consisted in the joint commission by The Crossing, Volti, Notre Dame Vocale and Cantori New York that is The Tower and the Garden by Gregory Spears, whose intimate opera Fellow Travelers I had very much admired when it was presented by the Prototype Festival last season. Here again, the staunchly versatile contemporary American composer showed an ambitious streak that would not be denied, and I am not saying that just because he adroitly incorporated a string quartet into the choral composition to make things even more interesting.
With richly interwoven textures and numerous fleeting solo parts strategically popping in and out, there was a lot going on in this four-movement study of the contrast between the search of truth and the threat of technology. Among memorable moments, the mighty Tower of Babel, inspired by “In the Land if Shinar” by Catholic poet and activist Denise Levertov, was gradually built with hypnotic waves of sounds and feverish excitement before spectacularly crashing down.
The last movement was a more elaborate version of the elegiac first movement, drawn from Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s poem “80”, in which Christ walks into the moonlit garden of Gerthsemane among his sleeping disciples at an extremely slow pace. Accordingly, voices and instruments combined for an ethereally beautiful, delicately multi-layered result, which, true to its lyrics, featured a seemingly endlessly extended and inconspicuously absorbing finale  (If you hadn’t gotten the slowness idea at that point, chances were you never would), But more rain outside and then more electric guitar practice inside brought me right back to reality.