Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Special Guests: The Cassatt String Quartet
Libby Larsen: Alaska Spring
Frank Brickle: Four Songs - Tim Ruedeman
Jacques Bank: Felix und Clara - Kathleen Chalfant
After Florilegium's performance on the Upper West Side, we all soldiered on to the Church of St Luke in the Fields in the Village for Cantori New York. Originally meant to take place on the previous Sunday, The "Felix und Clara" concert, which included the added bonus of a few well-regarded special guests such as the Cassatt String Quartet, saxophonist Tim Ruedeman and actress Kathleen Chalfant, had been rescheduled due to - You've guessed it - Sandy and its aftermath. Never mind. The venue was now fully back in business and, with one extra week to sharpen their skills, singers, musicians, actress and conductor could obviously only sound better, right? So we all happily sat down in another church pew, this time ready for an evening of always unusual, often challenging and reliably rewarding contemporary choral music. We would not expect anything else from those guys.
And sure enough, the first piece of the program, Libby Larsen's "Alaska Spring", proved once again what a fabulous ensemble Cantori New York is. Smartly choosing a life-affirming hymn to nature that is both sophisticated and organic, they had plenty of opportunities to display their well-known technique and did so without flinching, discreetly backed by the atmospheric sounds from the Cassatt String Quartet. Just like Mother Nature, this beautiful score kept the audience on their toes with its constant unpredictability and sheer power. After such an arresting opening number, I was worriedly wondering how the rest of the program could not go down from there.
The good news is, while the other works were not as instantly mesmerizing, they were certainly worthy of our attention as well. Composer Frank Brickle was in the audience, probably to check how the world première of his "Four Songs" would fare, and it is a safe bet to assume that he was pleased. While the poems themselves tended to be long and occasionally over-bearing, the harmonious voices of the chorus, the lush strings of the quartet and the natural sensuality of the wandering saxophone created a winning combination that was thoroughly enjoyable.
"Felix und Clara" was a different beast entirely. Inspired by the troubled relationship between Clara Schumann and her youngest son Felix (He wanted to be an artist, she did not think he was good enough), this is a 10-part piece made of her letters, which were recited, and his poems, which were sung. The strings connected everything together for a musically continuous and emotionally convoluted experience. Lucid and loving, Clara was solidly embodied by Kathleen Chalfant, who definitely sounded like the voice of reason in this constructed dialog. Stubborn and hedonistic, Felix came to life through the chorus, who managed to express the youngster's restless thoughts with steady commitment and poise. There is a lot going on in terms of words and sounds, but at the end of the day, the work is still accessible enough to strongly convey the ever-current theme of generational conflicts while remaining at its core a very satisfying musical creation. So what else could we ask for? Hmmm, maybe what that "baby crying" part, which none of us had identified as such, was all about...