Music Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Brahms: Sieben Marienlieder, Op. 22
Dame Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The Prisoner: Thomas West
His Soul: Chelsea Morris Shephard
Piano: Jason Wirth
One of the original gut-wrenching dilemmas of last Saturday night were the simultaneous performances of Yuja Wang rocking the "Hammerklavier" at Carnegie Hall and Cantori New York presenting their last concert of the season in the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields. But then the stars aligned when the latter providentially added a second performance on Sunday evening, which therefore allowed me to attend both concerts, even if it meant breaking a well-established rule and only show up for the US deuxième instead of the US première of Dame Ethel Smyth's valedictory oratorio The Prison (Can't say that the title was tremendously inviting either).
Since Cantori's laudable mission is to focus on "new and neglected works that deserve to be performed and heard", it came as no surprise that their program revolved around a virtually unknown work by one of the world's most unfairly neglected composers. More unexpected though was the inclusion of Sieben Marienlieder by Brahms, who by all accounts is far from languishing in obscurity. But that particular piece is definitely not included among his most popular hits and Dame Smyth was apparently a big fan of his œuvre, so we shall let it slide this time.
And Brahms' Songs to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalena turned out to be an especially good fit for the endlessly versatile choir, who immediately went down to business with their typical savoir-faire. Inspired by early German Romantic poems, the seven songs keenly described simple scenes featuring country folks impersonating religious figures in a bucolic environment, which gave an unusual but welcome human dimension to the short biblical scenes.
Things got a little more high-brow after intermission, when Mark Shapiro, the choir and three special guests took us on the metaphysical journey of a prisoner talking to his soul while trying to break free from his own walls and reach the universal divine. Written in 1930 and based on a treatise by Harry Brewster, seemingly Smyth's closest friend and ever-present confidante, The Prison takes the austere theme and boldly enhances it with myriads of masterly crafted harmonies and organically beautiful colors, especially designed for the various vocal parts, while a frequent piano and a sporadic bugle provide the instrumental accompaniment.
But even the most accomplished score still needs the right artists to come alive, and we had them last Sunday evening with much appreciated last-minute replacement Thomas West, whose flexible baritone starkly highlighted the struggle of the prisoner desperately looking for deliverance, and soprano Chelsea Morris Shephard, whose bright and eloquent singing gave a vibrant personality to the soul. Cantori's singers commandingly handled the intricate details and full-blown lyricism, whether the composition called for powerful swelling waves or more introspective moments. Pianist Jason Wirth solidly supported the voices' ever-changing ebb and flow and brilliantly fulfilled a pivotal solo at the beginning of The Deliverance.
The fight for freedom was torturous and intense, but it was eventually won in a totally uplifting release of glorious sounds. A memorable way to conclude Cantori's 32nd season and Mark Shapiro's 25th anniversary as artistic director. May there be many more!