Tag Archives: Walker

Vox Nova Composes a Symphony

Vox Nova
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
April 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Concerts are generally a mixed bag. Even those in which the musical selections and performances are all first rate lack a certain unity.

The recent performance of the Vox Nova chamber choir, with the DaPonte String Quartet, was as integrated as a three-movement symphony— musically, emotionally and thematically.

Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon Chase, is a 32-voice choir devoted to performing works of the modern repertoire. Since its founding in 2009, it has gained a reputation for innovation and excellence. The DaPonte String Quartet is arguably the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble in Maine.

Add the fact that a string quartet is probably the finest and most flexible accompaniment for a choir, and you have a very enticing combination. When Chase selected three closely related works for last weekend’s concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, she composed a symphony.

I enjoy Eric Whitacre’s writing for chorus, but his “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” sung in their original versions, is something special. The poems, by Hila Pitman, are short, pithy and as metaphysical as John Donne. In all of them, the music complements the words to create a whole that is greater than the sum of is parts.

Number five, “What snow! Like little dreams falling from the sky,” is incredibly good. The only other depiction that comes close is Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing,” from “The Children’s Corner.”

The second movement of the symphony featured the DaPonte alone, in Erwin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, shipped to Russia for safe keeping before the composer’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. This is a work that the DaPonte has made its own, and every time they play it, something new is revealed.

In the dramatic performance on Sunday, the quartet seemed to echo the themes of the preceding work in its rapid alternation of joy and sorrow, ending with a ticking clock that eventually stops dead. Its beat, 60 on the metronome, is that of the human heart.

The final movement was “The Golden Harp,” written by Gwyneth Walker in 1999 specifically for SATB choir and string quartet. It comprises eight settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

Walker said of the poems: All of the poetry selected for The Golden Harp is found in Tagore’s collection, Gitanjali, published in 1913. The poems span the course of the poet’s life. And the form of The Golden Harp mirrors this pattern. The work is divided into seven sections: triumphant at the beginning and close (#1 “Invocation” and #7 “Salutation”); more introspective in the interior sections (#2 “Beloved,” #3 “Prayer,” #5 “Thou Art” and #6 “My Tears of Sorrow”); and rising to a celebratory middle section (#4 “Light, My Light”).

The message of The Golden Harp is spiritual, and yet very close to the center of human emotions. Tagore’s poetry extols the beauty of the divine and the beauty of the soul within — the beloved as creator, the beloved as lover. “Thou art the sky and thou art the nest as well.”

The composer was in the audience, and in my opinion, could not have asked for a better reading of her work, whose emotional intensity at times was enough to bring audience members to tears. It brought the symphony full cycle, in its metaphysical concatenation of earthly and divine love. The depiction of divine light in setting IV more than equalled Whitacre’s musical vision of snow.

The poetry readings by Rose Horowitz were clear, well enunciated and emphasized all the right words, no mean feat for a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. And the purity of Anna Schwartzberg’s solo soprano part was heavenly. Bass Drew Albert was also first rate in the solo—“Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls”– that makes the protagonist universal rather than male or female.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

“Sweetest in the Gale” Is

Oratorio Chorale
Sweetest in the Gale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Brunswick
Apr. 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.

The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.

While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.

The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.

The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.

None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.

Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.

The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes,” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.

The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.

Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.

I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heavens and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes pure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.