By Paul Horsley
Even the humblest of choirs can sound good in a lush, warm acoustic, but it takes an excellent choir to come across as clear, accurate and well-balanced in a dry space. The Kansas City Chorale sounded lovely in its February 22nd concert “Oh! Canada! Music from North of the Border,” sung in the arid (though not unsympathetic) acoustic of Unity Temple on the Plaza. Not all the music was of highest caliber, but some of it was, and Charles Bruffy and his Grammy Award-winning ensemble of (in this case) 27 singers brought distinction to music by several composers whose names are unfamiliar to most of us. And in addition to these 70 minutes of music by Canadians—living composers save one—we were treated to an encore from the Chorale’s delicious new Chandos CD of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, a collaboration with the Phoenix Chorale that, to my ears, has Grammy potential.
“We don’t usually pick music just on the basis of who composed it,” Charles quipped at the outset of the program, this concert being, presumably, an exception to that rule. A pretty interesting comment, if you think about it, another way of saying: We sing music that’s good no matter who wrote it. And the Chorale does indeed have a way of making nearly anything sound as good as it can, even if on this particular day one yearned for a bit more bass sonority. (Alas, perhaps the church’s acoustics were partly to blame for this, after all.)
Stephen Chatman’s An Elizabethan Spring consisted of mildly inspiring settings of poetry by Thomas Nashe, Thomas Campion and an anonymous “Urchin’s Dance,” the latter with irregular rhythms and fun, almost speech-like declamation. More convincing were the five songs of the same composer’s aptly named Due North, which Charles described beforehand as “just kookie.” Each of the songs bears the name of a natural phenomenon: “Mountains” featured jagged angular lines to match the landscape in question, “Trees” was built from Ligetian clusters that built to heights matching, perhaps, those of the Canadian forest. “Woodpecker” bore no small resemblance, aptly so perhaps, to Meredith Willson’s “Pick a little, talk a little, cheep cheep cheep.” “Varied Thrushes” calls for a pair of ocarinas but instead featured sopranos Sarah Tannehill Anderson and Christine Baehr imitating that bizarre folk instrument—and with remarkable accuracy, I must say. “Mosquitos” inspired a bit of shtick similar to the “wave” at a ball game, as the insect flew across the row of women and then back across the men, finally being slapped and squashed by one male singer, ending the piece.
Healey Willan’s Liturgical Motets were luminous but rather conservative, even plain, in style, and the smattering of popular and folk-tune arrangements (sung mostly without conductor) ranged from the fun (the French “Dance, my monk! Dance!”) to the vaguely silly (“I’se the B’y”). “Feller from Fortune” from Newfoundland was a sweetly hearty portrait of village life on the seacoast: fishin’, drinkin’, courtin’, churchgoin’. Nova Scotian composer Peter-Anthony Togni’s Earth Voices, which was receiving its U.S. premiere, used a dreamlike verse evoking wind, fire, first light, spring rain, and so forth, in an earthy experimental vein that included breathy glissandi and droopy portamenti, as well as chimes and a tambour and all manner of other effects to create a suspended, almost cinematic atmosphere. (By sheer coincidence, Unity’s carillon began to sound at the exact moment the piece ended: “The Church’s One Foundation,” perhaps? Was this preordained, or simply lucky fate?)
The piece that made the day, for me, was Eleanor Daley’s gorgeous Grandmother Moon, on a poem by Mary Louise Martin that talks of the moon in the feminine. “She…” began each of the three stanzas, and each iteration took off in a different direction both musically and textually (“She … looks into and beyond my soul”). This tender, five-minute piece concluded with a cry of “welcome” to the moon’s embrace, sung as “we’lalin” in the language of the indigenous Mi’kmaq people of the Canadian Atlantic seacoast. One couldn’t help connecting the beautifully crafted lunar piece to the cover photo of the Chorale’s new Rachmaninoff CD, from which the group drew its encore, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” Tenor Frank Fleschner, here as on the disc, lent his clarion, sweetly tenacious solo voice to the plush choral texture.
To learn more about the Chorale, including information about the new Rachmaninoff CD available in the next few days, go to kcchorale.org. To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pictured at top: Eleanor Daley
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