Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah, I
Conductor: Emily Klonowski
Siegfried Thiele: Prophezeiungen (Prophesies)
Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah, II
Rex David Isenberg: Messiahs: False and True
Kathleen Chalfant: Narrator
James Kennerley: Organ
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
"Joyful pessimism", that's how Cantori New York's artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro described the concert program to the packed audience in the Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Saturday night. And since the three works being performed were all dealing with prophets throughout the ages ― and the choir had been hard at work on them for months ― there was no reason to doubt his word.
So we all happily embarked on an exciting cogitative adventure ― Not that we'd expect anything else from Cantori, of course ― with Thomas Tallis' "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" from 16th century England, Siegfried Thiele's "Prophezeiungen" from late 20th century Germany, and Rex David Isenberg's "Messiahs: False and True" from today's New York City.
Widely considered one of Elizabethan England's most talented composers, Thomas Tallis at some point decided to take on "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" and created his own adaptation of them, just as many other composers had done before and did after him. For this iconic version, as big of a hit today as it was back then, Cantori's singers made full use of the richly layered and seamlessly connected texture that Tallis had painstakingly woven for them, and delivered a riveting rendition of the prophet's poignant adjuration to the fallen city of Jerusalem.
Book-ended between the two parts of "The Lamentations" fiercely stood out little-known but definitely noteworthy "Prophezeiungen" by Siegfried Thiele. If English Renaissance man Tallis was inspired by the Ancient Bible, German contemporary Thiele chose texts by Italian Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci as well as a German folk song. And for all their wide differences and odd similarities, it was hard not to notice that both ominous pieces are still just about as regrettably relevant nowadays as ever.
"Prophezeiungen" is certainly no walk in the park as many disturbing images of conflict, mayhem and destruction, including the macabre arrival of a reaper named "Death", the dire warning issued to a pretty little flower, the heart-breaking soprano solo evoking all the unborn, or the powerfully resounding question "Why", kept on relentlessly assaulting the audience, but let's not forget that fleeting glimpses of poetic beauty could also be found here and there. And if the future looks awfully grim in Thiele's world, on Saturday night the strongly unified choir resolutely plowed through the apocalyptic prophesies for a totally exhilarating performance of them.
After the US premiere of Siegfried Thiele’s "Prophezeiungen", we moved on to the world premiere of Cantori member Rex David Isenberg's "Messiahs: False and True", in which English texts from and about public figures as disparate as Julius Caesar, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson and Ronald Reagan were interspersed with Latin excerpts from The Old and New Testaments. Together they formed a surprisingly cohesive whole that continuously challenged the audience's views on past, present and future leaders.
Broadway stalwart and Cantori regular Kathleen Chalfant gave articulate and poised readings of the various historical characters' texts, which at times even eerily transitioned as smoothly as can be from one to the other through time and space. The choir wholeheartedly handled the Biblical prose and mastered many hair-raising moments, such as when admonishing to prepare the way for the Lord or celebrating the appearance of a dawning light. On the other hand, dark omens were sarcastically hinted at by Jared Soldiviero’s thinly threatening bass drum and James Kennerley’s starkly solemn organ, which constantly reminded us not to believe all those fancy words and big promises. The best may not be yet to come, after all.
But then again, it may be, if we are to believe Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Man is his own star", a quietly humanistic poem about self-reliance that gently pointed out that the answer is in ourselves, ending the work, and the concert, with a much needed glimmer of hope.