Monday, March 10, 2014

Cantori New York - Evening Star: Choral Settings of English Verse - 03/08/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Sir George Dyson: To Music
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners
Edward Elgar: There is Sweet Music
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Music, When Soft Voices Die
Thea Musgrave: Four Madrigals by Thomas Wyatt
"With serving still"
"At most mischief"
"Tanglid I was in love's snare"
"Hate whom ye list"
Pascal Zavaro: Songs of Innocence - Miranda Cuckson: Violin
"The Sick Rose"
"The Fly"
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: More Shakespeare Songs
"Fear no more"
"Over Hill, Over Dale"
"Who is Sylvia?"
"A Scurvy Tune"

After my fun little rock'n'roll detour by the Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, I was back on much more familiar territory on Saturday night as I was going down to the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields for Cantori New York's "Evening Star" concert. This weekend also saw the first hints that spring may be on its way after all, which at this point really could not happen too soon. So what better way to celebrate Nature's eagerly awaited rebirth than with a night out to experience some classic English poetry set to music written by composers from the last couple of centuries? Not much, apparently, as a sizable crowd took place in the church and got ready for whatever was coming our way.

Among all the works included in a program focusing on the richness of the English language and the universal power of music, William Blake's deceptively unassuming "The Sick Rose", under the delicate care of contemporary French composer Pascal Zavaro, spontaneously stood out for me. As the choir breathed a new life into the ailing flower and the violin added a subtle shade of darkness, the fate of the doomed rose hauntingly played out in the last quatrain, when its bright crimson joy was mercilessly destroyed by the invisible worm.
Pascal Zavaro also put his considerable skills to work for the first stanza of William Blake's "Night", a precious moment of peace and stillness as the world was serenely going to sleep under the shining evening star and the smiling moon. Accordingly, the hushed voices would eventually remain suspended in the air as the violin made itself imperceptibly heard for a few more seconds, one last whisper of life before complete silent.
But the evening was not just about memorable flowers and sunsets, and plenty of genuine entertainment was to be had as well, still with William Blake and Pascal Zavaro as they tackled "The Fly". The quirky little piece started with the familiar annoying buzz before choir and violin vividly described the author's comparison of himself with an carefree fly. All was not fun and play though, as the hand of death suddenly showed up and unmistakably pointed out the precariousness of life.
Another episode of brilliant light-heartedness, except possibly for the sender and recipient, was Thomas Wyatt's last madrigal, "Hate whom ye list", a hell of an assertive 16th century forerunner of our times' "Dear John Letter" cleverly enhanced by Thea Musgrave's 20th century choral composition for it. That's when some highly spirited singing expressed better than written words alone could ever do the fact that, well, things between the two lovers were unequivocally over, and that, no, they would not still be friends.
On the other hand, an impressive challenge arose with Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners", which had been inspired by Donne's metaphysical poem "Holy Sonnet VII". Taking on no less than the Christian Judgment Day, Cantori's singers boldly created an intricate and convoluted tapestry of sounds in which it was awfully easy to lose one's way (I know I did). All this meticulously organized chaos being nevertheless superbly lyrical, the journey ended only too soon.
Speaking of challengingly intricate lyricism, there was even more of it in the next number, Edward Elgar's "There is Sweet Music", a choric song from Lord Alfred Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters". Whether singing in two separate gender-based groups, momentarily overlapping or eventually joining forces, the choir was continuously kept on their toes as they were building a fascinating, ever-expanding musical texture that miraculously resolved at the end.
After all those two minefields, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's choral treatment of Shelley's famous poem "Music, When Soft Voices Die" came out refreshingly straightforward and had a welcome soothing quality to it.
Last, but by no means least, came five songs by Shakespeare brought to musical life by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, who remained deeply respectful of the intrinsic splendor of the Bard's verse while adding engaging melodies and humorous touches to them. That's how we got to enjoy a soothing "Fear No More", a sparkling "Over Hill, Over Dale", an intense "Time", a lively "Who is Sylvia?", before "A Scurvy Tune" wrapped up the performance on a resolutely upbeat note.

Or so we thought, but not for long as Mark Shapiro brought Miranda Cuckson back for a short but violin-enhanced repeat of "A Scurvy Tune", which officially concluded the performance on an even more upbeat note.

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