Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Gustav Holst: Six Choral Folk Songs
Kimberly DiNicola: Soloist
Alice Ping Yee Ho: The Depth of this Quiet
Hen Herman: Viola
Yukie Honda: Violin
Karla Moe: Flute
Juja Shen: Pipa
James Waldo: Cello
Junling Wang: Guzheng
When, right before their performance last March, Cantori New York's artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro announced from the stage that the choir would be singing in Chinese for the first time ever during their May concert, it was clear from the singers' faces that this tidbit of information was news to them too. On the other hand, anybody even just remotely familiar with Cantori is well aware that the one thing that can be reliably expected from them is the unexpected, so there was no reason for the singers not to take this new development in stride and rise up to the challenge.
Consequently, after a mini-marathon of three widely different and equally terrific music performances in a row, spanning from a classic Baroque set by Johann Sebastian Bach to a wild contemporary ride by Esa-Pekka Salonen, I was thrilled to be able to reach the finish line – as well as my unavoidable and not entirely welcome milestone birthday – slightly breathless but totally psyched in the virtuosic company of Cantori on Sunday afternoon, even if that meant attending the world deuxième instead of the world première of Alice Ho's The Depth of this Quiet.
Since there is never a dull moment with the MTA either, the local train was running express and the express train was running local, making the trip down to the Village more unpredictable than I cared for. But it all paid off when I found myself back in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields with various friends and acquaintances on a gloriously warm and sunny spring afternoon for Cantori's last, but by no means least, concert of their season.
Before the highly anticipated new adventure, the program included a traditional set of songs by Gustav Holst, an English composer best-known for his instrumental one hit wonder The Planets. However, beside a keen interest in astrology, the man was apparently into investigating the many possibilities of the human voice too, and one of the results of this laudable endeavor is his lively "Six Choral Folk Songs".
From the charmingly flowery "I sow'd the seeds of love" to the spirited drinking song "Swansea town", "There was a tree" delighted with its fluttering birds, "Matthew, Mark and Luke and John" reminded us we were in a church, "The song of the blacksmith" brought some highly rhythmical comic relief, and "I love my love" leisurely unfolded with sentimentality galore. Whether lightweight or more serious, with always just the right amount of earthiness, they went down quick and easy.
After intermission, the time had come to boldly travel across cultures, space and time with Canadian composer Alice Ho's The Depth of this Quiet, a 45-minute cantata based on poetry in English by contemporary Canadian writer Carole Glasser Langille interspersed with poetry in Mandarin by Alice Ho and 8th century writer Li Bait. This unusual mix would be performed by the choir and a substantial instrumental ensemble comprised of Western flute, violin, viola and cello as well as Eastern pipa and guzheng, two Chinese plucked string instruments.
From the very first moment, the general impression was one of unaffected beauty as even in the most sorrowful moments, the two drastically different languages organically flowed into each other while the instruments’ distinctive sonorities blended just as effortlessly, creating a unique combination of sounds that was instantly engaging and universal. Nothing flashy ever occurred, and yet this wide-ranging exploration of stark Canadian landscapes and complex human emotions was absorbing and memorable.
I would be hard-pressed to assess the singers’ Chinese pronunciation, but I can tell that they skillfully brought out the exquisite lyricism of the English poetry, including numerous naturalistic details such as apple frozen on trees, the moon thin as ice and blue shadows floating in the snow. Once in a while, things got suggestive when two women decided to hang around a bed covered with black satin in "Black", vivacious when trying to deal with a crazy map in "Directions", inquisitive when questions were repeatedly asked in "Noise", or compellingly pulse-driven in "This Naked Morning".
The Chinese famously say that “The journey is the reward” and this one was certainly a mesmerizing experience that, with no big sounds or loud statements, but plenty of genuine cooperation and gorgeous harmonies, subtly and assuredly asserted itself. That is one lesson that the rest of the world should definitely heed these days.