Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Gibbons: O Lord, In Thy Wrath
Farrant: Hide Not Thou Thy Face
Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands Together
Victory: Seven Songs of Experience
Thomasin Bentley: Alto
Ellie Killiam: Soprano
Ben Keiper: Tenor
Mark Stedman: Tenor
Steve Underhill: Tenor
Przybylski: Tyger Tyger
Gareth Flowers: Trumpet
Richard Harris: Trombone
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
Matt Smallcomb: Percussion
After attending a few large-scale performances at David Geffen Gall, Carnegie Hall and The Met in the past couple of weeks, I was very much looking forward to downsizing in quantity, but definitely not in quality, with Cantori New York's first concert of 2017 in their usual home, the West Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields. I obviously was not the only one who had figured out that the best way to spend this cold and wet Saturday evening would be to ponder universal issues such as the eternal fight between good and evil as well as to wallow in profound existential angst – and a healthy dose of weird sounds too – because the space filled up quickly with a wide assortment of curious newbies and confident regulars.
Ever the equal opportunity choir, Cantori was presenting a wide-ranging, all-English program that included three motets from 16th century England, the U.S. premiere of a choral work from 17th century Ireland, and the world premiere of a modernist composition for chorus, brass and percussions from 21th century Poland, not only to attempt to make everybody happy, but also, and especially, not to scare anybody away until the end.
For an ensemble long known and prized for its unwavering commitment toward new and neglected works, the concert started on a shockingly traditional note with three not particularly overlooked English motets by Orlando Gibbons and Richard Farrant. But, come to think of it, maybe tackling traditional pieces is Cantori's way of beating their own tradition of being non-traditionalist, after all. In any case, this little foray into Tudor England’s church music persuasively demonstrated that they can effortlessly handle this type of material too.
Next we remained in the fairly traditional realm, but moved on to a by all accounts unfairly neglected work with Gerard Victory’s Seven Songs of Experience, a substantial piece consisting of selected poems from William Blake's not so neglected Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It did not take long for me to realize that I was already somewhat familiar with "The Fly" and "The Sick Rose" as Cantori had sung different versions of them concocted by contemporary French composer Pascal Zavaro just about three years ago. On Saturday night, Victory's older takes may have lacked Zavaro's ingenious quirkiness and Miranda Cuckson's exquisite violin, but the underlying melancholy and subtle lyricism nicely stood out.
Other highlights included an organically gorgeous "Ah Sun-flower", which clear-voiced soprano Ellie Killiams raised to rather amazing heights, "The Little Vagabond", whose rambunctious and endearing character was playfully pointing out the dire need for cool ale and a warm fireplace in church to make it more appealing, and, last but not least, "The Tyger", whose magnificence and ferocity came out in spades.
Overall though, the undisputed hit of the seven-part work, and of the evening, was "The Human Abstract", a moralistic text whose stern subject matter (The most memorable image probably being Cruelty knowingly using abstract Christian values to plant and grow a malicious tree in the Human Brain) was wonderfully balanced by its beautiful intricate textures and infectious swinging rhythms, which Cantori’s singers carried out with brio and finesse led by indefatigable maestro Shapiro. One day after St. Patrick's Day, the Irish was still going strong.
After intermission, it was time to put our avant-garde hats on and gear up for Dariusz Przybylski's resolutely adventurous Tyger Tyger. And as if to get right to the heart of the matter, this time Blake's "The Tyger" had been intrepidly deconstructed, first opening in a mysterious jungle smoothly put together by the exotic percussions and the resounding brass, before myriad voices were heard relentlessly whispering in the shadows. Soon enough sopranos and altos started creating attractive background tapestries while tenors and basses took charge of the text while trying to come up with their best tygerish impressions for what turned out to be a bold trip on the wild side, with its fair share of eloquent theatrics and colorful expressiveness.
The roaring performance went on with three Shakespeare quotes about the Devil whole-heartedly screamed by the singers, a spell-binding dialog between the two percussionists, a chunk of contemporary Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's "Life-while-you-wait" about man's inadequate preparedness for the act of living, and Victorian poet Matthew Arnold's "To Marguerite: Continued", which ended the work, and the concert, with thorny questions about science interfering with human relationships and God, a gorgeously soaring lament, and no resolution in sight. There was plenty of musical satisfaction to be had though.