Artistic Director and Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Benjamin C.S. Boyle: The Lamentations of Jeremiah
Lembit Beecher: The New Amorous World
Emily Hoile: Harp
Kyle Hoyt: Horn
Rheagan Osteen: Horn
Jeremy Cohan: Narrator
Although I had regularly heard raves about the remarkable acoustics and eye-catching interior of the Park Avenue Christian Church on the Upper East Side, I had not been there for a concert - or any other reason - until last Saturday. That's when Cantori New York kind of reversed their usual schedule and performed the first concert of their new series there, instead of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, where they will return this Saturday. Since I only do premières, not deuxièmes, I reversed my schedule too and finally got a chance to go check out the rightfully much lauded church, my only regret being that the late hour automatically prevented us from enjoying what looked like spectacular stained-glass windows.
As if to make the occasion even more special, the resolutely forward-looking choir was presenting the world première of not one, but two radically different choral works about the past and future of humanity, written by two young and up-coming American composers, Benjamin C.S. Boyle and Lembit Beecher, who were both in attendance. A typically intriguing and ambitious endeavor that attracted a significant crowd, which was amply rewarded with exciting new music, some of it inspirational for its sheer beauty, some of it memorable for its idiosyncratic inventiveness.
The first piece of the evening, Benjamin Boyle's The Lamentations of Jeremiah, was finally brought before an audience in its entirety after almost 10 years in the making. Needless to say it was perfectly suited for a Christian church, and after hearing it, I can also safely state that its appeal is truly universal. The admittedly superior acoustics did a wonderful job at letting the haunting voices boldly take up the whole space, and the finely tuned, expertly layered singing did the rest. Fundamentally complex in its structure and yet impeccably soaring in its execution, Boyle's new musical setting of the popular liturgical text is clearly entitled to have its own spot among the versions of numerous other masters such as Tallis, Couperin, Stravinsky and Bernstein.
Half as long and (at least) twice as weird, Beecher's The New Amorous World was kind of a CliffsNotes-type lesson in early 19th century French philosopher Charles Fourier's utopian ideas using a chorus, a harp and two horns. This one was not completely new to me as I had attended a sneak preview of it when it was still a work in progress about a month ago, but there was still a lot to take in. Opening to the assertive sounds of a glistering harp and two triumphant horns, the recurring theme of "Harmony" made it first and powerful appearance, reminding us all that its occurrence is as essential in music as it is in civilization.
What followed was a series of statements, sung or spoken, ranging from relatively common topics such as equal rights and free love to the definitely more esoteric concept of the all-mighty "Archibras" (aka the Arm of Harmony). The whole enterprise was for sure more engaging than my high school philosophy lessons, and about just as enlightening, which, incidentally, proves the importance of the method. Cantori's singers and conductor Mark Shapiro were obviously game, and with noticeable help from the vibrantly present instrumentalists, turned Fourier's sometimes eccentric, sometimes compelling, but in any case never boring, social theory into a totally winning performance. It all ended up in a slightly bluesy mood, the choir quietly pondering the (in)sanity of it all. And frankly, so were we.