Conductor: Roland Hayrabedian
Zad Moultaka: Ikhtifa
Michel Petrossian: Horae quidem cedunt
Maurice Ohana: Swan Song
Musicatreize & Cantori New York
Conductor: Mark Shapiro
James Primosch: Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus
Although I had the best intentions in the world, a schedule packed with can't-miss performances made me regretfully miss Cantori New York's turn in Daphnis et Chloé with the American Ballet Theater (Although I probably would not have been able to hear them much anyway considering the notoriously subpar acoustics of the Koch Theater), and then their first official concert of the season with Musicatreize, the French professional vocal ensemble they had partnered with during their whirlwind and intense concert series in Marseille back in 2013, when the city was one of the European capitals of culture, because I had to put myself through Guillaume Tell again, and make it the end this time. Therefore, I had to contend myself with the deuxième on Sunday evening as opposed to the première on Saturday evening.
That's when after three long years the American choir finally got to not only host to their fellow French choir, but also to join them for Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus by James Primosch, after Musicatreize had performed an intriguing program on their own in the cavernous Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, which is not only beautiful but, as luck would have it, also happens to be located a few blocks from my apartment. It could not get much better than that.
The concert opened with a nostalgic trip down memory lane all the way to the South of France with Zad Moultaka’s Ikhtifa, which Musicatreize had already performed during their concert with Cantori in Marseille. Complex, atmospheric, whimsical, and making clever use of the Arabic language, once again Ikhtifa (Disappearance) offered a unique and hypnotic musical experience as seemingly random sounds uttered by the singers were playing off one another, coming together to constitute a fascinating whole during the first half and shooting off in myriad directions, in particular once the singers had moved to various locations around the audience, during the second half. Some pieces just never get old.
Next, Michel Petrossian’s Horae quidem cedunt, which was originally the accompanying score to the 1972 film by Armenian cineaste and poet Artavazd Péléchian The Seasons, is a stark homage to landmarks in Armenian history expressed through texts by Virgil, Philippe Mahaud, Cicero, The Old Testament and the composer himself that are sung in French, Russian, Latin and Ancient Hebrew. On Sunday, the endless variations of the voices, on their own or together, in which East met West, somberly evoked the hard life of the Armenian people migrating according to nature’s and history’s demands and toiling the ever-present land throughout the unalterable cycle of the seasons. Poetic, earthy and sung to perfection, the musical journey was gratefully taken and enjoyed.
Maurice Ohana’s Swan Song is an atypical requiem that keeps on fighting death in the course of four movements before triumphantly winning. The opening "Drone" was a dense, colorful and energetic incantation made of countless different phonemes, from which a single voice occasionally sprang out. In sharp contrast, "Eleis", a Negro spiritual sung in Creole English, was overflowing with rich harmonies and compelling solo turns. Inspired by the French poet Ronsard's "À son âme", "Épitaphe" was lighter fare, but still pondering mortality, before "Mambo" wrapped things up by chasing death off in a strongly rhythmical Afro-Cuban dialect. Wildly eclectic yet totally coherent, Swan Song strongly emphasized the tremendous vocal range, impeccable clarity and laser-sharp precision of Musicatreize’s singers.
After intermission, Musicatreize and Cantori New York joined their mighty forces for the New York premiere of James Primosch’s Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, for which Roland Hayrabedian passed the baton to Mark Shapiro. After the resolutely bold, at times coming from exceptionally far out left field, vocal experiments we had just heard, the openly beautiful and profoundly stirring mass spontaneously engaged the audience as it was confidently unfolding its adroit combination of traditional liturgy literature and Mass-inspired text by English poet Denise Levertov.
Throughout the five movements, the four soloists from Musicatreize superbly sang the excerpts from the Latin Mass while the combined choirs, stalwartly open-minded but definitely no fool, soulfully reflected on them in magnificent unison. With truly uplifting music and brilliantly written poems, this contemporary mass grandly stood out for its winning spirit of collaboration, a healthy dose of skepticism and a universal sense of humanity, all of which are unfortunately needed more than ever now that The Apocalypse – not to mention national embarrassment – are officially upon us.