Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Amsterdam Singers - Calamity and Consolation: From Darkness to Light - 03/09/14

Music Director & Conductor: Clara Longstretch
Howard Skempton: We who with songs
Ola Gjeilo: Ubi Caritas - Nathaniel Granor: Conductor
Johannes Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben - The Chamber Chorus
Felix Mendelssohn: Beati Mortui - Max Blum, Andy James, Nathaniel Granor & Robert Thorpe
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae - Winnie Nieh (Soprano) & Max Blum (Tenor)
Heinrich Schütz: Musikalische Exequien - John Feeney (Double bass), Pen Ying Fang (Portative organ) & Max Blum (Intonations)

By chance this past weekend was happily overflowing with choral music courtesy of Cantori New York in the Village on Saturday night, and The New Amsterdam Singers, who performed in the beautiful Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side on Sunday afternoon. So many choirs, so little time (Sigh).
One more coincidence was the presence of Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi on both programs, albeit with different works. The NAS had chosen his famous piece, or at least as famous as a Finnish choral piece can be, "Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae", which was inspired by the sinking of the luxury ferry Estonia in 1994. I had heard of it, but I had never actually heard it, so I was understandably very curious. It was a beautiful March day, perfect to cross The Park to venture to The Other Side and spend the late afternoon immersed in "Calamity and Consolation: From Darkness to Light". Oh my.

Not only did I get to enjoy two fabulous choral concerts this past weekend, but interestingly there was also a somewhat seamless continuation between the two performances as the first piece on Sunday afternoon was early 20th century British poet James Elroy Flecker's "The Golden Journey to Samarkand" set to music by contemporary British composer Howard Skempton. The end result, "We who with songs beguile the pilgrimage", had a refreshing directness to it and started the concert with lots of colorful lyricism.
Contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo's "Ubi Caritas" followed with a beautiful plain chant, complete with Latin text and an unmistakable medieval ring, which reminded us, if need be, that we were in a church.
Then we travelled back a couple of centuries in the company of two major German masters of Romanticism, starting with Brahms' "Warum ist das Licht gegeben". Bringing up the existentialist topic of "Why may one not die when one is ready to go?", the gripping motet expertly combined the polished restraint of early music and the passionate feelings of Romanticism, to end with the same melody found in Part I of Schütz's Musikalische Exequien.
Next was Felix Mendelssohn and his "Beati Mortui", which is based on Revelation 14:13, which happens to be the same text appearing in the third movement of Schütz's Musikalische Exequien. The sound of the four male voices singing in Latin had an understated elegance and a delectably rich fullness to it.
The anchor of the concert may have been Schütz's Musikalische Exequien for its size alone, but the work I was first and foremost there to hear was Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's "Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae". And my patience was gloriously rewarded. The three main vocal elements - the soprano, whose wordless folk song opened and closed the piece, the tenor, who matter-of-factly intoned the Nunti Latinii news report, and the collective chorus, who sang The Catholic Requiem Mass, Psalm 107 - gave startling performances that made the poignant piece ever more powerful. Soprano Winnie Nieh's voice rose impeccably pure and heart-breaking, tenor Max Blum had an unwavering assurance of tone, and the chorus fully succeeded in not only remarkably singing the liturgical text, but also in creating a wide range of sounds associated with the shipwreck. The work was only about 12-minute long, but the emotional punch it packed lingered on for much longer.
After such an intense journey, I am afraid that Schütz's Musikalische Exequien did not get all the attention it deserved from me. I still, however, very much enjoyed the mix of Bible's excerpts and liturgical texts that was sung by various combinations of singers. Amazingly enough, the tricky structure of the composition did not prevent it from effortlessly flowing. The choir expertly handled the interweaving structures and kept the mournful music - it was written for a funeral, after all - from coming out too lugubrious while the double bass and the portative organ subtly added just the right amount of instrumental accompaniment. And then there was light.

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