Monday, March 14, 2016

Cantori New York - La remontée des cendres - 03/12/16

Artistic Director & Conductor: Marc Shapiro
Bruno Bettinelli: Three New Madrigals (Tre nuovi madrigali)
Maija Einfelde: At the Edge of the Earth (Pie zemes tãlãs)
Frank Ferko: La remontée des cendres (The rising of the ashes)
Siman Chung: Countertenor
Halley Gilbert : Soprano
Frank Cassara: Bass drum
Funda Cizmecioglu: Violin
Sara Cyrus: Horn
Richard Harris: Trombone
Thomas Hutchinson: Trombone
Kris Saebo: Tuba
Jeff Scott: Horn
Dan Peck: Tuba

After a Friday evening spent reveling into Messiaen's tumultuous Turangalîla-symphonie, a Saturday afternoon partially enjoying Ben Bliss' and Lachlan Glen’s flawless recital of bel canto arias, classical pieces and popular songs at a Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert – not to mention a few pop hits from the 1980s (Cyndi Lauper, anyone?) in a local pizza joint for good measure – I was as ready as could be for my next and final musical stop of the weekend on Saturday night: Cantori New York's one and only March performance of presumably exciting contemporary works that had not gotten a chance to be heard in New York City yet.
The centerpiece would be the U.S. premiere of La remontée des cendres by American composer Frank Ferko, whose Stabat Mater has remained one of the undisputed highlights in Cantori's extensive history of bold and successful endeavors. It would be preceded by the U.S. premiere of Italian composer Bruno Bettinelli's little-known Three New Madrigals, and the New York premiere of Latvian composer Maija Einfelde's intriguing At the Edge of the Earth. Just another evening of intrepid choral experimentation with Cantori New York, in the Village’s familiar Church of St. Luke in the Fields.

The concert started with Bruno Bettinelli's study madrigal "Parole in Cerchio" (Words in Round), in which the fundamental concept of "Love" had to contend with much less attractive notions such as "War" and "Death" in an endlessly adjustable, beautifully kaleidoscopic tapestry of sounds. From this unusual starting point, maestro Shapiro and his fiercely dedicated singers took us on a harmonically dazzling journey through the ever-changing nature of the human experience.
Next, the self-described burlesque madrigal "Lo Struzzo" (The Ostrich) obligingly provided the only comic relief episode of the evening as the endearingly naive big bird tried its darndest to fly and predictably fell flat on its face in full chromatic glory.
The last and by far darkest piece of the trio was the political madrigal "Convien al secol nostro" (To our century belong), in which ignorance, shame and despair uniformly reigned until the wheel of fate finally brought hope back.
As if to make sure we were not getting too comfortable after those readily accessible Italian miniatures, Cantori resolutely moved on to a decidedly more challenging undertaking with Maija Einfelde's At the Edge of the Earth, a Latvian chamber oratorio in twelve parts that is based on four excerpts from the Greek tragedy "Prometheus Bound", whose moral of the story can best be summed up as "Do not play with fire".
That certainly was enough to pick the audience's curiosity and sense of adventure. The choir's assured mastery of the dauntingly intricate composition did the rest, all the way to the impressively cataclysmic ending, and we all came out gratefully conquered. That said, it is not like most of us could have faulted their Latvian skills anyway.
I am, however, perfectly capable of faulting French skills, but I would have been hard pressed to find any issues in Cantori's haunting performance of Frank Ferko's La remontée des cendres on Saturday night. The long French text, consisting of seven sections selected by the composer from an even longer poem by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, uses the local, which in this case is the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to reach the universal in its visceral description of war.
Beside the deeply committed and consistently effective singing by the choir, the sizeable instrumental accompaniment, coming from no fewer than eight musicians, proved to be particularly helpful in adding a layer of not only gloom and darkness, but also confusion and anger, to the work. The low brass instruments turned out to be ideal to emphasize the idea of suffering and despair while the lingering violins subtly reinforced the feeling of emptiness and desolation.
The two solo parts, for countertenor and soprano, were short but nevertheless totally earned their presence in the score by providing respectively a victim's disgusted point of view and a witness's agonizing questions when confronted with the horrors of war, making the whole ordeal even more personal and relatable.
Frank Ferko was in attendance and looked genuinely pleased by the performance. So was the audience. So much so in fact that we immediately started to look forward to The Prison in May. Same time, same place.

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