Virginia Arts Festival
I’ve never seen Christ & St. Luke’s Church in Norfolk as full as it was for the Virginia Arts Festival May 4 performance of Chanticleer. Not only was the entire center section completely full, but people were sitting on the sides, behind pillars, just to hear this extraordinary vocal ensemble.
They began with five Latin selections from the biblical Song of Songs, beginning with Veni, dilecte mi (Come, my beloved) by 17th-century Spanish composer Sebastián Vivanco; Nigra Sum (I am black but beautiful) by 16th-century composer Jean l’Héritier; Palestrina’s simple, restrained motet Osculetur me (Let him kiss me); Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s flowing Ego flos campi (I am the flower of the field); and Surge, propera amica mea (Rise up, my love), a six-part motet by Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the church did not allow women to sing for religious services, so the soaring high notes were reserved for castrati (countertenors today).
Chanticleer sang one of Pierre de Ronsard’s most popular poems set by Philippe de Monte—the jaunty Bonjour mon Coeur (Greetings my heart) and Le premier jour du mois de May, Madame (On the first of May, my lady). For Ce ris plus doux (This sweeter smile), Anthoine de Bertrand set another seductive Rostand poem in which even the trees—and the voices—jump for joy!
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi is from Finland, and his setting of a poem by poet Edith Södergran introduces interesting dissonances and is very different from the motets. Its three parts—The most beautiful god, Lyre of the gods and To Eros— explore a different but no less rewarding musical language.
American Eric Whitacre was represented by Go, lovely rose, an exquisite piece written when he was only 21. A pair of 19th-century Stephen Foster songs followed: Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway! arranged by John Musto, with its plaintive "Why? Why? Why?" ending, and the classic Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, arranged by Gene Puerling, with a long, spun-out note at the end—gorgeous! In This Marriage, Eric Whitacre set a 13th-century love poem by Rumi, which ended in a lovely wordless melody.
Modern settings of 20th- and 21st-century composers included Noel Coward’s I’ll Follow My Secret Heart, Francis Poulenc’s Les Chemins de l’Amour” (The Paths of Love), and a really lovely version of Edith Piaf’s classic La Vie en Rose, pitched higher than Piaf ever thought of singing—and, probably the most unusual choice, Freddy Mercury’s Somebody to Love, arranged by Vince Peterson. There was cheering and whistling as Chanticleer came back for three curtain calls and an encore: the spiritual We Shall Walk Through the Valley, arranged by their former director Joseph Jennings.
Chanticleer’s mastery of so many very different genres, their incredibly clear diction, their superb blend, and their spectacular soloists were all faultless . . .
Simply put, the presence of so many countertenors unbalances an ensemble of twelve voices. The foundational overtones of the lower voices, which ideally support the higher ones, are no longer fully present. On the rare occasions when the three lower voices came into prominence, the contrast of deeper voices was welcome, but fleeting.
Think of spices, which add so much to the enjoyment of food. A dash of cinnamon can enliven a lamb dish or perk up a breakfast pastry with taste and aroma—but too much of any spice unbalances the outcome.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Chanticleer departed from the printed program listing of three songs by Russian composers to sing for us a new work by Richmond native Mason Bates (b. 1977) that the group had premiered at the Kennedy Center two nights before. Drum Taps is a setting of a Civil War poem by Walt Whitman. With continuous, strong, marching rhythms, the story was clearly articulated in a tapestry of changing voices. The story: "Come up from the field, father" - Mother holding a letter from their son - The smell of ripening grapes and buckwheat in bloom perfume the air -"This is not our son's writing" - The letter tells of his being taken to the hospital - "Sickly white his face but that he will be better soon" - But in reality he is already dead . The vocalise of the drums closes this powerful new work.
In his book Art as Experience (1934), American philosopher John Dewey lamented the American habit of putting art on a “remote pedestal.” There is a whiff of this in the chamber music offerings of our own Virginia Arts Festival. Certainly with the Beethoven and Brahms pieces offered by the American String Quartet this was true. The mastery of technique is perfection itself in the intimate ultra-modern performing space of the Hixon Theater.
The stunning departure in the program was Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73 (1946). Violinist Yehudi Menuhin well-described Shostakovich's life as “the tragic horror of a trapped genius.” In the third quartet I find terror and revulsion masked by surface features like the folk dance-gone-awry early in the first movement. There is a sense of intrigue and of rawness that is a comfort because of its honesty about the human condition, then and today. Though written during Stalin's reign of terror in the 20th century the music mirrors the malevolence accompanied by incompetence that is on the rise in America today. This leaves many of us on edge. Can you imagine the anxiety of Shostakovich's life and possible death in the Soviet Union? Yet out of this grew Shostakovich's originality of concept and deeply personal language. In this grave, dramatic work he gives each instrumentalist, in turn, a moment of glory: Peter Winograd, violin; Laurie Carney, violin; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; and Wolfram Koessel, cello. In the fifth and final movement there are moments of joy that peek through a somber tapestry of sound. Horrendous, disruptive phrases intrude on more lovely, placid sections.
The program opened with Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) String Quartet in Bb major, Op. 18, No. 6 with innocent, joyous music. Later there are stately, driven rhythms, effervescent and manic by turn. An abrupt stop is a little joke to capture the listener's attention. The second movement is more serious and lyrical and sometimes slow and dreary. Two plucked strings bring it to an end. The Scherzo offers lively sawing of strings that created some mysterious harmonies. Fancy fiddling creates a melodramatic fast fourth movement. The long, fifth-movement finale offers a delicate, melancholia that morphs into a pastoral dance. Fast virtuoso playing offers a contrasting mood to the abrupt, melodramatic end. Overall, the piece is rooted in the music of Haydn and Mozart and rather light in content but flawlessly performed.
The quartet was joined by André-Michel Schub in the final work, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. Critic Alex Ross describes it as a “crazy monument” of chamber repertoire. Completed in 1864 in its present form, this 43-minute work is big and symphonic in its conception, though its lyrical passages offer a Schubertian flavor with the light and dark shades in the main theme through major/minor alterations.
In the second movement by focusing on the second violinist, Laurie Carney, I became aware of her concise statements that added greatly to the richness of the sound. The plucked cello in the Scherzo was a launching pad for the syncopated main theme that creeps up through the strings until it explodes into a robust minor-key march— toe-tapping and with driving rhythms. The finale slowly builds with a lively excitement as Brahms knocks themes back and forth rather than creating a formal development through to its presto ending.