Chorus: Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica
Director: Karmina Silec
Jacob Cooper: Stabat Mater Dolorosa/The Sorrowful Mother Stood (excerpt)
Bronius Kutavicius: Pskutines Pagoniu apeigos/Last Pagan Rites
Karin Rehnqvist: Puksanger/Timpanum songs (excerpt)
Liga Celma: Sauceja dziezma/A Song
Tellu Virkkalla: Tuulet/Winds
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Bogoroditse Devo/Rejoice, O Virgin
John Pamintuan: De profundis/From the Depths
Lojze Lebic: Mozaiki/Mosaics
Sarah Hopkins: Past Life Melodies
Syrian orthodox hymn (arr. K. silec): Wa habibi/My Beloved
Boaz Avni: Kyrie eleison/Lord, Have Mercy on Us
Veljo tormis: Raua needmine/Curse upon Iron (excerpt)
Giovanni Pergolesi: Sanctua Mater Speciosa/The Beautiful Mother Stood (from Stabat Mater)
After my musical year 2014 ended with a classical and uplifting performance by a large ensemble of disgustingly young and talented musicians coming from the US and Canada in Carnegie Hall's prestigious Stern Auditorium, my musical year 2015 happened to start with an edgy and intense performance by a large ensemble of disgustingly young and talented singers coming from Slovenia in Dumbo's ultra-cool St. Ann's Warehouse. To which I say: Onward and forward!
I did not know much about Carmina Slovenica or Toxic Psalms before signing on for it, but I knew enough about the three-year old Prototype Festival's resolute focus on artistic boldness to trust that I was indeed in for an intriguing evening of choral music and theatricality that would be wrestling with concepts like collective power, ethical choices, and whatever else I was about to find out.
That may not sound like ideal Friday night fare, especially after the first post-holidays five-day work week was finally over, but a little intellectual and ‒ let's not forget, sensorial ‒ stimulation has never hurt anyone. So on this very cold Friday night, my friend Amy and I soldiered on to her neck of the Brooklynian woods for a new, and presumably exciting, adventure.
The initial impression of Toxic Psalms cannot but be one of grimness when the first sight is some black work boots meticulously organized in rows on the stage and suspended in the air, and the second sight the appearance of a group of 31 somber-looking young women slowly taking over the cavernous space. Displaying strikingly similar ghostly pale skin, discreetly expressionist make-up and neatly pulled-back long hair, they nevertheless wore distinctive and occasionally elaborate black outfits as if to emphasize the numerous different parts that were making the remarkable whole, whether they moved and sang in impressive unison or took a commanding stand on their very own.
That's when intrepid director Karmina Silec came in with her signature concept of "choregie", a combination of "Chorus", as in the Greek theater tradition, and "Regie", which means "(theatrical) direction or production" in German. On Friday night, the result was a series of eight seamlessly integrated scenes in which sounds, movements and random accessories all comingled to take the audience on a visceral journey through, according to the program notes, "Palestine, Syria, Pussy Riot, weapons, concentration camps, blood feuds, extinctions, contaminations of religions, and human brutality". Quite an impressive laundry list of unsavory topics for an evening whose subject was supposed to be love, if we were to believe the first statement matter-of-factly uttered by the chorus member who opened the show.
And sure enough, despite a couple of over-extended spoken interludes and some relatively puzzling touches, the performance went on for about 90 gripping minutes, during which an incredibly wide range of musical works allowed for memorable moments to pop here and there. From the haunting medieval "Stabat Mater Dolorosa" and the melancholic Syrian orthodox hymn "Wa habibi" to the turbulent Finnish "Tuulet" and the long, terror-inducing number adapted from the Finnish epic The Kalevala, both accompanied by impeccably synchronized, starkly assertive percussions, the singing was beautifully textured, uncompromisingly powerful, and fiercely committed.
However, no matter how immensely rewarding the musical experience turned out to be, the vignettes that are going to stay with me the longest are unquestionably a handful of outstanding visual feats such as the isolated woman representing justice by balancing two upside-down umbrellas on a rod over her head, a lone accordionist appearing among a sea of purifying lemons scattered all over the floor, the fleeting lights in the bluish tableau featuring Rachmaninoff's stunning "Rejoice, O Virgin", and the dancing mirrors that the entire chorus eventually held up to our faces while telling us not to be afraid.
The raison d'être of the whole endeavor may have been summarized in the unyielding Pussy Riot-worthy electric bass line that was reminding us all that even when outside forces of evil are bringing us down, our spirits must remain unbroken. A statement eerily relevant these days as France and the rest of the civilized world are grappling with the fact that horrific murders have been committed on account of satirical cartoons, and all parties have unanimously decided that our spirits shall not be broken. Nous sommes tous Charlie.