Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Niels Rosing-Schow: Where the Willows
Alba Potes: Pedro Páramo
Alfonso Diaz: Narrator
Peter Tantsits: Tenor
Dan Kempson: Baritone
Greg Hesselink: Cello
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
Wendy Stern: Flute
Kristina Teuschler: Clarinet
Soprano Solo: Dawn Jordan
After ending my Carnegie Hall season with a mostly traditional program on Thursday night, I was more than ready to end my Cantori season with ‒ what else? ‒ a mostly non-traditional program last Saturday night down in the Village, where I giddily joined a few friends spread out in a sizeable crowd in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields.
The evening would include Danish composer Niels Rosing-Schow's "Where the Willows Meet", which consisted of four poems by James Joyce arranged for a choir, and then Colombian-American composer Alba Potes' "Pedro Páramo", a one-hour brand new composition commissioned and premiered by Cantori New York that very evening. The work sounded all the more intriguing as in South America Juan Rulfo's novella Pedro Páramo enjoys a widespread popularity that only equals its uncompromising weirdness in form and content. Because there’s nothing like wrapping up a concert season with an attractive teaser followed by an intrepid adventure in high drama and pervasive creepiness.
As if not to scare anyone away, Cantori opened the concert with a thoroughly engaging rendition of Niels Rosing-Schow's "Where the Willows Meet", which delightfully dwelled on the artless lyricism of the poems written by a young man happily celebrating the joys of love and nature. Smoothly moving from richly colorful descriptions to rousing commands ‒ When they sang out “Arise, arise!”, you knew they really meant it ‒ the choir was in full, splendid romantic mood, and so was the audience.
We did not have the opportunity to marvel at those pretty melodies very long though, as after the intermission we all boldly stepped into the whole different world of Alba Potes' "Pedro Páramo", a world imbued with magical realism that was considerably darker, drastically less tonal, and filled with odd characters, whether they were dead or alive, as well as death, bitterness, abuse ‒ and still the occasional glimmer of hope ‒ in the (literal) ghost town of Colama, Mexico. The cantata unfolded in six sharply fragmented, starkly colored scenes, each starting with an English introduction from narrator Alfonso Diaz in order to provide some much needed context.
The singing, on the other hand, was entirely done in Spanish, the chorus making a grand entrance as their voices powerfully swelled and meandered when describing the road that rises and falls in the hot August wind. Then it all went down to nightmarish Colama from there. Although at times they whole-heartedly threw themselves into dreadful fits of rage ‒ when as the spectral town people they repeatedly lashed out that Pedro Páramo was "living spite", you could definitely tell that deep-seated resentment had reached its boiling point ‒ the chorus also thoughtfully conjured up quieter, softer moments of warmth and longing when bringing up as fond as could be memories.
Tenor Peter Tantsits was persuasively ambivalent and fearful as Juan Preciado, the son who went on a reluctant search for his estranged father after the death of his mother and ended up meeting his own death in the middle of the story. That's when his father appeared and took over the narrative with baritone Dan Kempson, who was appropriately sinister but also surprisingly poignant as Pedro Páramo, the strongman who deeply suffered from youthful unrequited love before eventually destroying the town. Some guys just do not take rejection well.
Last, but by no means least, the instrumental accompaniment extensively helped create an eerie atmosphere thanks to the appealing combination of the mysterious darkness of the cello, the ambiguous flutter of the flute and clarinet, and the disturbing ominousness of the set of percussion, which I found particularly effective when evoking rattling skeletons' bones. Moreover, the extra soundtrack provided by the steadily pouring rain outside the church added yet another spooky musical component to the already unsettling experience.
This year happens to be the 60th anniversary of the novella's publication, and this gripping performance may even have gotten the classic work new fans, one gratefully weirded out audience member at a time.