Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Johann Brahms: Ich aber bin Elend (But I am poor)
Jacob Avshalomov: Tom O’Bedlam
Thierry Machuel: Paroles contre l’oubli (Words against Oblivion)
Ben Keiper: Tenor
Eleanor Killiam: Soprano
Lucian Avalon: Oboe
Charles Kiger: Percussion
For the last, but by no means least, installment of my “Three Saturday Nights on the Town” series, last Saturday evening I braced myself and made it all the way down to the West Village’s Church of St Luke in the Fields for contemporary choir Cantori New York’s long-awaited first concert of their official season. Not that the hard-working singers and artistic director have been lounging around though, as earlier in the fall they have been relentlessly busy with a blink-and-you-miss one-nighter with Teatro Grattacielo before moving on with barely enough time to regroup to a more extended – and no doubt more rewarding – fling with American Ballet Theatre.
Finally back on their own track, the endlessly versatile ensemble drastically switched gears one more time from Il Grillo del Focolare’s Italian verismo and Daphnis et Chloé’s French Romanticism to “give voices to the unheard” in three widely different works from Thierry Machuel with Paroles contre l’oubli, Jacob Avshalomov with “Tom O’Bedlam”, and Johann Brahms with “Ich aber bin Elend”. Granted, the perspective of hearing a choral version of French and Basque testimonies written by prisoners, an English song about homelessness and a German motet about misery may not have sounded particularly appealing at first, but the consistently adventurous choir has proven many times over that it can always be trusted to deliver a worthwhile musical experience.
Therefore, a fairly large crowd, including a few familiar faces, and I decided to brave the shockingly sudden arctic cold spell and the predictably unpredictable subway system to make it to the Village for one hour of essentially somber music on off-putting topics, made even more depressing by their persistent relevance.
Johann Brahms’ “Ich aber bin Elend” started the concert with biblical inspiration, German Romanticism and glorious harmonies. Asking God for protection against life’s many ills, the plea was short, but powerful, and was much appreciated by the die-hard Brahms fan that I am.
Based on a 17th century anonymous English poem, Jacob Avshalomov’s “Tom O’Bedlam” takes on the everyday struggles of a homeless person, which Cantori’s singers conveyed in an insightful and sensitive fashion.
After a brief pause, the choir was back with two instrumentalists for the US premiere of Thierry Machuel’s Paroles contre l’oubli. Putting together eight French testimonies and two Basque testimonies from prisoners of the Maison Centrale de Clairvaux, the composition explores how forgetting and being forgotten (the dreaded “oubli”) takes a severe toll on people set apart by and from the rest of society through those people's very own words.
The succession of sharply individual snapshots, whether universal, fierce or optimistic, was started by the mournful rising of the oboe, then quickly picked up by the choir. Although the oboe and percussion made timely cameos during the performance, it unsurprising;y fell on the singers to actually give voices to those more or less coherent written testimonies. In fact, some of them were definitely less than more so, such as the text by S. M., whose state of deep confusion was only heightened by the intricately overlapping voices.
On the other end, the challenges of gnarly tongue-twisters such as “insignifiantifiée” (whose English equivalent would probably be “insignificantized”, in case you’re wondering, and no, it does not exist in French either.) were met with deftness and assurance by the singers. Slowly building a unified whole, the ever-shifting composition, complex or unadorned, intense or melancholic, disheartening or humorous, eloquently expressed the wide range of disarray of its subjects.
But hope was not totally gone, which Agustin forcefully asserted at the very end of the entire piece with a text in Basque saying loud and clear, and with life-affirming rhythmical stomping too, that he had not forgotten. As if to make sure to drive his positive point home, and maybe to work out the last couple of stubborn kinks as well, the choir gamely performed it twice.
So the concert ended on an unexpected but welcome uplifting note, which happily lingered with me for a while and then gradually faded away during my agonizingly slow subway ride back home, which took significantly longer than the concert itself.