An American Journey with Cantoris

Choral Music by Rorem, Copland, Ives, Barber,

Randall Thompson, Virgil Thomson


Heather Easting (organ)

Schola Sinfonica Players

Rachel Hyde (conductor)

St.Peter’s Church, Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 21st November, 2009

Cantoris concluded a rich and satisfying musical year working with current musical director Rachel Hyde by giving us a programme entitled “American Journey”. All but one of the works on the programme were composed during the twentieth century, the exception being Charles Ives’s setting of Tennyson’s “Crossing the bar” (1891). If one was looking for some kind of unifying spirit with which to tie the constituent parts of the concert together, it would be a sense I felt of the music having in almost every case been written to reach out to ordinary people. The exception was the Samuel Barber work Reincarnations, a set of three choral madrigals written in 1940 for the composer’s own Madrigal Chorus at the Curtis Institute of Music, complex, organically-conceived music, demanding for performers and more than usually challenging for listeners. Although the choir struggled at times with this work to maintain pitch, hold ensemble tightly and keep a pleasing tonal quality, it was nevertheless a rewarding piece to tackle, with many telling moments conveyed, such as in the second song, a setting of James Stephens’ poem about a hanged agrarian activist, where repeated cries of the martyr’s name, “Anthony” accompanying the verses generated a lot of power and feeling.

More characteristic of the concert’s general ambience was the opening “hymn anthem” written by Ned Rorem in 1955, a composer whose activities in different spheres would put most people’s creative output to shame in terms of volume, variety and interest. Sing my soul his wondrous love is the first of a set of three similar works dating from early in Rorem’s career, hinting at an interesting half-genre between hymn and motet, a gentle, sensitive setting of an Episcopal Hymn dating from 1841, beautifully “turned” by the choir under Rachel Hyde’s direction. In a not too dissimilar vein was Aaron Copland’s Four Motets, settings of Biblical texts written in 1921, the choir enjoying the “hummed” vocalisations in the first setting Help Us O God, and expertly negotiating the tricky key-changes (Thou O Jehovah, Abideth Forever) and the variation of metre (Have Mercy On Us O My Lord) in  the two central pieces, before capping the set off with the full-throated Sing Ye Praises To Our King, even if the singers’ attack had lost a bit of its “ping” by the end.

Charles Ives’ Crossing the bar, the oldest piece in the concert, sets some interesting harmonic modulations on the back of the basic key of C Major, such as those at the words “Twilight and evening bell”, out of which swells a great flood of emotion for the lines “….may there be no sadness of farewell”, nicely encompassed by the singers, as was the exultation at “I hope to see my Pilot face to face” and also the gentle, ruminative repetitions of the final “When I have crost the bar….” After this came what the programme notes styled as an American choral classic, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, given a properly exultant reading, but paying due attention to gentler detail, such as the undulating accompanying passages in thirds, beautifully controlled. Conductor Rachel Hyde added a spontaneous percussive element to the excitement of the work’s climax, before gathering in the strands once more for a rapt “Amen” at the close.

Returning to Ned Rorem’s music after the interval was a delight, the 3 pieces taken from a larger, 15-part work, in which they form unaccompanied interludes. Most obviously striking was the first of the three, whose sexual imagery persuades as much as it initially startles: – “nothing at all to talk to and make love when I awake”, the choir’s voices shaping the phrases with delightful relish; and then responding more urgently to the quicksilvery Father, Guide and Lead me and the epigrammatic Creator Spirit,please….. which followed. I liked also the direct simplicity of Virgil Thomspn’s Oh my deir hert, hymn-like with a humming accompaniment, music for which this sort of programme was devised.

The “other” Thompson (Randall) made a reappearance, with his work Frostiana, settings of the work of one of the truly iconic American poets, completed in 1959. The composer set seven of Robert Frost’s poems altogether,from which set four were chosen for presentation here. Originally for piano accompaniment, Thompson orchestrated the settings after the poet’s death (there exists contradictory evidence regarding the poet’s attitude towards the musical settings of his verses – perhaps Thompson’s reticence while Frost was still living provides a clue!). Several young players from Rachel Hyde’s own Schola Sinfonica accompanied the choir, and sustained their rhythms and tones well throughout, the lovely quasi-oriental instrumentals at the end of the first setting The Road Not Taken being particularly well-realised. At the end, the programme featured the youngest composer’s work, Matthew Harris (b.1956), exerpts from three books of Shakespeare songs from various plays set by the composer. A very “American” use of wordless “do-do-do” vocals coloured the second setting, Tell Me, Where is Fancy Bred, and as well the last of the four O Mistress Mine featured a soloist with an ear-catching “popular song” manner. I also liked the “Hey nonny-no” motif of It Was a Lover and His Lass, used rather beguilingly as a rhythmic carriage for the song, while the choir’s forthright tones and rhythmically confident delivery of the opening Take, O Take Those Lips Away was carried through the companion settings and made for a most rewarding evening’s singing and listening.

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