Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Adventurous program for Cantemus

The Brahms may well be the centerpiece of Cantemus’ upcoming winter concert in Newburyport, but, despite its rich, Romantic harmonies and dynamic variations, "Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen/ Why then has the light been given?" is not the most interesting or challenging piece on the North Shore choral group's ambitious, stylistically diverse "Winter Lights" program. That would undoubtedly be “Snowforms,” a six-minute piece by contemporary Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer that is as strange as it is magical and alluring in style, structure and presentation. It's a composition that doesn't look or sound like traditional choral, and, it is said, a piece that requires a leap of faith to be successfully performed, requiring singers to trust their own instincts and imaginations as well as those of the composer and conductor. Written in 1982 and inspired by the winter view outside the composer's Ontario farmhouse, the piece is meant to evoke physically and musically the diversity of snowflakes. The music is presented graphically. There is no staff paper, no traditional notation, but unlined paper that is divided vertically at five-second intervals. Letters indicate notes. The curving lines connecting them indicating treatment — thickening lines mark crescendo, thinning lines diminuendo, rising and falling lines indicating pitch. The piece is is written for female voices only. Singers are expected not to "hit" notes, but to glide between them in a continuous portamento, like the bending pitches of a synthesizer.

The text is sparse, consisting of Inuit words for various kinds of snow, like akelrorak, meaning drifting snow, or pokaktok, meaning snow like salt. With the exception of these Inuit interjections, the "vocals" are hummed throughout. The score also provides additional insight from the composer. For example, at 1:35, calling for the chorus to be divided into two or three groups, overlapping gently and continuously, as the word "apingaut/first snowfall" is sung. Or, at 1:55, calling for a "a sudden burst of energy, then tapering away" as the first two syllables word "mauyak/soft snow" are sung. But, in his notes, Schafer indicates that conductors should not feel "enslaved" by his stage direction. Challenges for the singers include imprecisely defined notes, sudden breakaways into unconventional harmonies and non-traditional chord structures. The challenge for the conductor is leading without smothering a piece that, as seemingly precise as it is, leaves room for individual expression. The conductor’s work is as much conjuring a performance as it is shaping it.

"It’s a tough piece," says Cantemus Music Director Gary Wood. "It takes lots of work, many, many rehearsals, before the environment, what you might call the sonic landscape, begins to sound natural."

But, as “out-there” and “non-traditional” as the Schafer seems at first blush, it actually fits in quite snugly in a seasonal — and, here, seasonal means just that, not necessarily a euphemism for Christmas — program that is designed to reveal “the varied moods and energies of winter – the light, the snow, the shorter days, and the human response to it all," says Wood. "This season draws comparisons to light conquering darkness, and so perhaps it makes sense that light became a symbol of hope, redemption and victory in many faiths.” “Winter Light,” which the 31-voice choral group will perform Dec. 5 in Hamilton and Dec. 6 in Newburyport, is a big-tent program of contrasting periods and styles, from the Romantic perspectives of Brahms and Elgar to the modern views of late 20th- century composers like Schafer, Eric Whitacre and Stephen Chatman. Pieces sung in Inuit, German and Latin, taking their textural clues from the Book of Job, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare and even Robert Frost.

Sung in German, the Brahms motet man, is based on Biblical texts (Job, Lamentations and James) with a final musical “chorale” from a Martin Luther text. Elgar is represented by three works from“The Light of Life,” an early extended work that Wood describes as “ highly engaging and beautiful.” The singers will divide for Charles Wood’s harmonic, resonant “Hail, Gladdening Light,” a lush work for double chorus. In “Lux Aurumque/Golden Light,” Whitacre uses Latin words to create a choral soundscape that aims to “shimmer and glow,” Wood says. And “O Nata Lux,” a movement from the often-performed five-movement work “Lux Aeterna” by American composer Morten Lauridsen is an introspective meditation on the one “born light of light.” Canadian composer Stephen Chatman’s “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” is based on the classic and well-known “song” from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

The men of Cantemus will perform “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from the larger Frostiana song cycle — an evocative Robert Frost poem set to music by one of America’s most celebrated choral composers, Randall Thompson, who uses a “slow sustained tempo to paint a picture of snow, darkness and duty,” says Wood.

The concert will close out with traditional carols.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN — Cantemus will perform "Winter Light" at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Church, 149 Asbury St., Hamilton, and at 4 p.m. Dec. 6 at 4:00 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 166 High St., Newburyport. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors. Admission is free for students under 21. Save $2 by purchasing advance tickets at at The Newburyport Printmaker, Nazir’s of Wenham, Norris Gallery and Frame Shop in Ipswich, the Book Shop of Beverly Farms, Toad Hall in Rockport and Gloucester Music. For more information, call check out the Cantemus web.

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN — Here’s the Cantemus Who’s Who, by community: Manchester-by-the-Sea: Music Director Gary Wood and singers David McCue and Anne Wood. Haverhill: Accompanist Frances Burmeister. Beverly: Scott Hufford, Richard Salandrea. Bradford: Alison Garner. Byfield: Doug Guy. Essex: Betsy Vicksell. Gloucester: Pat Lowery-Collins. South Hamilton: Donna Gale, Marcy Homer. Ipswich: Bill Effner, Gary Freeman, Hugh McCall, Anne Maguire, Dorothy Monnelly, Nat Pulsifer, Sr. Pat Rollinger, Debby Twining. Lynnfield: Priscilla March. Medford: Bill Dowdall. Newburyport: Gary Lubarsky, Norm Stein. Rockport: Marcia Siegel. Wakefield: Mark Pierce. Wenham: Jamie Cabot, David Geikie, Bill Holloway, Conrad Willeman. West Newbury: Michael Fosburg, Susan Nash. Dover, NH: Sydney van Asselt.

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