Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cantori New York - Crouch, Moss, Bielawa & Fairouz - 03/09/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Bass Clarinet: Bohdan Hilash
Baritone: David Kravitz
Alto Flute: Karla Moe
English Horn: Setsuko Otake
Viola: Nadia Sirota
Shawn Crouch: Sleepless
Piotr Moss: Go Where Never Before
Lisa Bielawa: Lamentation for a City - Conductor: Jason Wirth
Mohammed Fairouz: Anything Can Happen

Somebody once said that variety is the spice of life. So after a long, philosophical and grandly rewarding Parsifal on Friday night, I was off to Harlem on Saturday afternoon for a Carnegie Kids concert with the groovy soul band Shine and the Moonbeams. This whole gig turned out to be a bigger endeavor than planned when I first realized that the two subway lines I needed to get there were not running, and later when I found myself face to face with dozens of kids of all ages obviously on high power batteries running all over the lobby and the concert hall of the Schomburg Center. This one and a half hour of boisterous, semi-controlled chaos certainly got my mind off lofty redemption issues and into the real world in no time.
After so much boundless exuberance, I was more than happy to contemplate what would probably be a more sedate evening with Cantori New York and their new "Anything Can Happen" concert. I had briefly thought of giving myself a break and going to the Sunday afternoon performance, but since the program featured two premières and that after Saturday night they would technically no longer be premières - After all, a first time can only happen once - I soldiered on. Moreover, the perspective of hearing musical pieces evoking big city living in a bare black box located in a decidedly gritty area of New York City sounded somewhat more appropriate than in a lovely little church on the stately Upper East Side.

The first work, Crouch's Sleepless, was not exactly new to my ears as I had heard it about a month before in a reduced version at the Morningside Heights Interfaith Center. But Saturday night's performance of it was definitely more layered and more effective at expressing all the frustrations associated with sleep deprivation, clearly proving that there is undeniable strength in numbers. As the lone instrumental voice, the insistent bass clarinet deftly contributed to the description of sleeplessness in all its irritating, even debilitating nature.
I had been repeatedly warned that the program would be depressing (but beautiful). Nevertheless, after mulling over getting a shrink and/or a drug dealer and putting them on speed dial, I decided to just show up as mentally prepared as possible for a Saturday night filled with gloom and misery. So there I was, mightily bracing myself as soon as the first notes of Go Where Never Before, the world première du jour, resounded. The name of Samuel Beckett is naturally no big surprise when a collaborative mope-fest is threatened, and the moroseness of his prose was indeed inescapable. But while the accompanying composition by Piotr Moss was solidly on the ruminatively existentialist side as well, the end result was not quite the expected open invitation to suicide. The first poem, which was very much stop-and-go, made the next three sound comparatively much more pleasant and harmonious as they were simultaneously flowing in English and in French. The unusual instrumental quartet consisting of an alto flute, an English horn, a bass clarinet and a viola provided a discreetly bluesy ambiance, which, granted, had a melancholy tinge to it, but reportedly did not induce any vertiginous descent into clinical depression among the audience. In fact, the richly nuanced chocolatey overtones of the instruments were beautifully balanced by the uplifting human voices of the singers, and together they created some downright appealing, delicately noirish, Stieglitzian musical snapshots of urban life.
For the gloriously lyrical portion of the evening, we had Lisa Bielawa's magnificent Lamentations for a City. Skillfully combining the continuously frenetic buzz coming from the high-tech media hive that is the unstoppable, barely controllable World Wide Web in the background with the poignant Lamentations of Jeremiah, which dramatically describe the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, she composed an emotionally powerful hymn to the convoluted rises and falls of legendary metropolises throughout the world. The unparalleled grief and suffering caused by the fall of the biblical city found its highest form of expression in the choir's hauntingly moving singing, which eventually culminated in a brutally intense Kaph.
The last work of the evening was the New York première of Mohammed Fairouz's Anything Can Happen in the presence of the young composer himself. Opening with the formidable winter storm of "In Iowa", it featured two other poems by Seamus Heaney, which were interspersed by two Suras from the Injeel (The Arabic Christian Bible) in their original language. So, on paper, we were basically facing a solid dose of disturbing physical upheavals and dour religious themes. But that was without counting the collective musical forces of the Cantori's singers, baritone David Kravitz and violist Nadia Sirota, all under the assured baton of Mark Shapiro. The choir's nicely textured voices made themselves vibrantly heard while the viola's gorgeous earthy huskiness and David Kravitz's assertive dark tones added a strong spiritual touch to the whole experience. Let's just point out that the finale, "Anything Can Happen", should not be recommended for the faint-of-heart. Although it has been associated with September 11, the poem also conveyed much more universal apocalyptic images from Horace's time to the present days, before concluding on a quieter, but still depressing note. The ending was definitely not happy, but the audience certainly was.

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