The Thirteen


Virginia Wesleyan College Choirs Offer Music by Timothy C. Takach
Featuring the Voice of Billy Brown Youmans & the Cello of Jake Fowler
Bayside Presbyterian Church, February 28, 2016
Review by John Campbell

With a new Director of Choral Activities, Bryson Mortensen, the Wesleyan Singers got back their joyous voices. A program of music by Timothy C. Takach of Minneapolis, was sometimes thrilling and always entertaining.

The program got off to an energetic start with Flight, a poem by Henry W. Longfellow, set in 2003 by Takach. The Wesleyan Chorale (18 voices) and the Wesleyan Voices (8 voices) drawn from the Wesleyan Singers plus Danielle Profitt, appeared with brightly-colored, precision-tuned, open-ended plastic tubes (Boomwhackers, as any current elementary school student would know, but not us!). A dozen seated singers created the lively rhythms striking parts of their bodies—primarily thighs and hands—with the Boomwhackers.

Soprano Billye Brown Youmans, with George Stone at the piano, sang Takach’s three-song cycle Departure (2004). The first song, on a poem by E.E. Cummings (1923), the hours descend, takes us through a day from stars fading at dawn as the city wakes and goes about its business until the hours descend putting on stars with an intimation of death at day's end. Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's Lonely (1922) “What lips my lips have kissed” is about remembering on a rainy evening “I cannot say what loves have come and gone; I only know that summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more” was so very sad. The concluding song, If You Want Me Again, set to a poem by Walt Whitman (1855), by contrast is hopeful. “Look for me under your boot soles...missing me one place, search another…” Each miniature story was engagingly told By Ms. Youman's lovely sound, clear diction and emotional vitality.

The Wesleyan Voices then offered Serenade (2006), text by Erin Bishop, which demanded of the eight singers constant adjustments in their tonal balance to create an American landscape.

Jacob Fowler’s solo cello was featured in two works. 38 Tears (2012) is a Dakota melody written down in 1842. A quick-tempo fiddle tune was punctuated by hand-strikes on the bridge throughout—some soft, some hard, some high-pitched, melting into a of slow, sad feeling. I wept for its simple beauty. The Ground Blurs (2012) is moderately paced in the language of Bach reconfigured, followed by a hint of the pathos of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. Contrasts of quick notes with accidentals return to Bach in this piece of shifting moods.

The Longest Nights, as the program was titled, is also the title of the choral cycle that was given its Virginia premiere with Mr. Mortensen conducting the 40 voice Wesleyan Singers. Mr. Takach’s choral cycle was performed by 42 choirs, each with their own state premiere of the piece in 2016. The Wesleyan performance was one of only a few with some movements with string accompaniment. The string quartet included Kristy Green and Mayu Kuroda, violin; Stacy Migliozzi, viola; Jake Fowler, cello and George Stone on piano. The composer says of the piece: “I’ve always imagined the winter months as the bottom third of a circle, dipping lowest at the new year and then coming back up to find spring…Winter is a descent of sorts. We dig deep, we nestle ourselves in, we maintain until it’s safe to come out.” Remember, he is talking about Minnesota winters!

We heard five of seven movements. I. A Winter’s Spell is a setting of a poem by Charles Anthony Silvestre that offers a nostalgic view of summer fading away with exuberant music fortifying against winter’s coming chill. Troubled string parts and then voices seem to chase each other in IV. Blizzard (text: Juhan Liiv, trans. H.L. Hix and Jüri Talvet). The challenge was to keep the moving parts together. It all worked well. The harmonious group sound in V. Winter Walk (Brian Newhouse, poet) was a story delivered matter of factly: “I am out walking to ask the winter moon: Who will I be when the spring rains come?” The men often hummed, blending with piano while the women sang the text. The group’s blend offered engaging tonal beauty. The opening vocalise of VI. Last Night’s Moon emphasized deep voices and the piano added mystery. The text consists of three Haiku poems (the first by Scott King and the second and third by Liiv) that tell us of moonlight on the snow, followed by ice melting and spring announcing its coming!

The string quartet opened VII. Returning (text: Wendell Berry), the concluding song, where the tops of the hills caught the morning light and the light was singing as it emerged from winter’s darkness— spring had come. “Spring” is repeated again and again until it fades away, and the strings have the last gentle word.

The heartland American composer Timothy C. Takach offers challenging, listenable music with never a dull moment and the performers did his works proud.

The Thirteen
Hofheimer Theater, Virginia Wesleyan College
October 24, 2016
Review by M.D. Ridge

The word is out: among the audience at Virginia Wesleyan October 24 were not only students and general lovers of vocal music, but a significant number of music professionals. The choral ensemble called The Thirteen consists of thirteen members—twelve singers and their thoughtful, effective conductor Matthew Robertson. They had everything one could possibly ask for: pristine diction, superb phrasing, immaculate intonation, flawless blend, crisp direction and extraordinary musicality. The word is out.

Their unusual program was divided into three “scenes” exploring the ideas of relationship: “with the self, the other, and the wider universe.” They began with the regional premiere of I’ll Fly Away, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, using the text and fragments of the 1929 hymn tune with improvisatory passages. It was a very odd juxtaposition of images and sounds, words and phrases pulled out of expected context and repeated and repeated, as if Gertrude Stein, that great experimenter with language, had been able to write and arrange music. It was definitely not easy stuff, requiring seamless breath control in long, wordless “ah’s,” with chromatic changes and constantly shifting dynamics, leaving the listener awed and wondering, “How on earth do they do that!”

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was next in an unusual arrangement by post-minimalist composer Tarik O’Regan, incorporating elements of Renaissance vocal writing. The elegant mezzo-soprano soloist was Fabiana Gonzalez.

Eight singers took on Letter to My Father (in three parts), the fourth work in contemporary American composer Ted Hearne’s Coloring Book. The text was by Zora Neal Hurston—“How does it feel to be colored.” It was pulled apart into repeated words and phrases, with perfectly tuned dissonances and odd rhythms. Abrupt phrases were contrasted with long, long lines; Andrew Padgett’s clear bass-baritone invested a crucial line with telling import.

In a complete change of pace, both the music of Orlande de Lassus and the Latin text of Timor et tremor (Fear and trembling) soared simply and beautifully to the repeated last line: “I shall not be confounded.”

In Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations, James Stephens wrote a set of not translation but poems based on those of Irish poet Anthony Raftery. One described the great beauty of Mary Hynes, and Barber’s lyrical setting ended with the airy repetition of the word “airily.” The second, on the death of Anthony O’Daly, was a blast of raw grief. The third—The Coolin—was a sensual, passionate dream, in which effortlessly streaming high notes never obscured the text.

One protest song came from a spiritual—Go Down, Moses, in a setting by Sir. Michael Tippett, beautifully intoned by baritone Jackson Williams. In We Cannot Learn by Ted Hearne, a South African train vanishes into the distance, taking hope with it. Long, high notes sung by several were as one voice. The final line “oh mother, it’s leaving me behind” was repeated by the women, more softly each time as it faded to . . . nothing. One could hear the audience holding their collective breath, reluctant to disturb the riveting silence.

The Thirteen will soon have sung or recorded all five of Thomas Tallis’s votive anthems. Ave, Dei Patris filia (Hail, most noble daughter of God the Father) addressed Mary with a seamless stream of beauty, alternating men’s and women’s voices like threads in a tapestry. But a tapestry is static, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the voices of The Thirteen were like a breathtaking sonic tapestry weaving together pure light and sound into the air.

After a richly deserved ovation, their encore was You Are the New Day, by Welsh rock musician John David, in an arrangement by acclaimed British composer and conductor Peter Knight. It was lyrical and deceptively simple: simply, lovely.

It’s difficult to describe the sublime without either dissolving into “you had to be there” burble or bleaching out all their graceful physicality and emotion. Yes, The Thirteen have three wonderful CDs available, but there’s no substitute for hearing them live. You had to be there.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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