Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cantori New York - Nazziola, Palestrina, Holst & Bank - 11/08/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Tom Nazziola: Mediterranean Trilogy
I. Love (Text by Khalil Gibran)
II. Here I love you (Text by Pablo Neruda)
III. It gives me wonder (Text by William Shakespeare)
Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis (Song of Songs)
I. Osculetur me osculo oris sui
II. Trahe me post te
III. Nigra sum sed Formosa
Conductor: Jason Wirth
Gustav Holst: Five Partsongs, Op. 12
I. Dream Tryst
II. Ye little birds
III. Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee
IV. Now is the month of Maying
V. Come to me
Jacques Bank: The jazzman, his wife and the Persian poet
Thomas Bergeron: Trumpet
Paul Murphy: Trumpet
Maryann Plunkett: Narrator
Kris Saebo: Double bass
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
Jason Wirth: Piano

Now that the 2014-2015 cultural season has gotten into full swing, it was only a matter of time before Cantori New York and their adventurous artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro presented their season-opening concerts, and that's just what they finally did this past weekend, on the Upper East Side and in the West Village, with a predictably unpredictable program made of works from a wide range of genres, time periods and parts of the world, because they can.
So on Saturday evening, a sizable crowd, including so many familiar faces that it almost felt like another day at the office, braved one of the first bitterly cold spells of the season and eagerly gathered together in the beautiful Park Avenue Christian Church. We were all there to attend the world premiere of attending Dutch composer Jacques Bank's The jazzman, his wife and the Persian poet, a piece about American jazz giant Charlie "Bird" Parker and his common-law wife Chan that involves a chorus, a few musicians, a narrator, and some verses from Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat. Although this intriguing centerpiece sounded just about right for the thrill-seekers among us, it was prudently preceded by more traditional but still exciting fare from contemporary New York, Italian Renaissance and early 20th century England to keep the more conservative minds happy as well.

The concert opened with the US premiere of Brooklynite Tom Nazziola's Mediterranean Trilogy, which of course immediately brought me back with profound nostalgia to the work's European premiere over a year ago in Marseille, where it was performed by Cantori as part of the musical festivities celebrating the French city's status of 2013 European Capital of Culture. Based on texts by Khalil Gibran, Pablo Neruda and William Shakespeare, the three spontaneously engaging movements depict various moods of love, from contemplative to wishful to joyful. Since they have just recorded it, I expected Cantori's singing to be pitch perfect, and it pretty much was. Another proof, if need be, that practice, practice, practice does pay off.
Love – or at least lust – was still in the air as we moved on to 16th century Italy for a sample of Palestrina's sprawling Song of Songs. As the choir was working its way through three of the Renaissance master's unabashedly sensual motets, the audience fully relished the timeless beauty of those little gems, whose highly refined polyphony ardently filled up the hushed church. On a more prosaic note, witnessing Cantori perform a choral work that is neither new nor neglected was also a Kodak moment to remember.
Jumping forward a few centuries and heading up north, we found ourselves in England for Five Partsongs by Gustav Holst. Mostly well-known for his popular orchestral suite The Planets, he also happened to have built a remarkably eclectic œuvre throughout his career. Written when he was not yet 30, these five love songs were charmingly melodic, pleasantly light-hearted and all-around lovely, like a care-free stroll in the ever-green English countryside.
They say that behind every great man stands a great woman, and it certainly sounds like Jacques Bank would not disagree with that. By bringing to musical life the long-lasting, endlessly complex and deeply loving relationship between Charlie Parker and Chan through her experience of it in The jazzman, his wife and the Persian poet, he has created a brand new masterwork that eventually reaches universality via its very particulars, whether they be the obstacles faced by the interracial couple in 1950's America, the heart-breaking death of their child, some 11th century Persian poetry or a resolutely modern instrumentation.
Since the composition is not about Charlie Parker's music, there was no saxophone to be found on the stage, but the piano and double bass effortlessly conveyed a discreet jazzy mood. On the other hand, the two trumpets quickly imposed themselves bright and clear, and the wood blocks were so assertive that my ears are still ringing just thinking about them. Although projecting the narration over the music was challenging at times, nonplussed veteran performer Maryann Plunkett whole-heartedly put her crystal clear articulation and strong power of expression to the service of Chan, giving the young woman a vibrant emotional presence. Cantori's singers, taking on the role of a traditional Greek chorus, superbly enhanced the mystical quality of Omar Khayyam’s poetry while providing subtle insights in Bird’s multifaceted-character. In the end, one trumpet gently uttered the jazzman's last, sinuous breath, and the rest was silence.

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