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Philadelphia Singers’ all-American concertBY: Tom Purdom 10.19.2010
The Philadelphia Singers’ new emphasis on American choral music wisely exploits conductor David Hayes’s conviction and understanding.
Philadelphia Singers: Betinis, Bar Xizam; Bryars, On Photography; Shapiro, Metamorphoses; Thompson, The Peaceable Kingdom. Luke Housner, piano; Bryan Anderson, organ; David Hayes, conductor. October 17, 2010 at Church of the Holy Trinity, W. Rittenhouse Square. (215) 751-9494 or www.philadelphiasingers.org.
When composers confront technologyTOM PURDOM
In 1867, an Italian priest named Gioachimo Pecci, the future Pope Leo XIII, confronted the technological marvel of his time and wrote a brief Latin poem: Ars Photographica. Gavin Bryars’s 1983 choral work, On Photography, transforms Pope Leo’s eight lines into a long, reverent meditation on the wonders of the world and “the miracle of human thought.”
Bryars’s quiet, undramatic setting for chorus, piano, and harmonium fulfills the major purpose of a musical setting. It embellishes the words with color and feeling and endows them with extra strength and depth. I lost track of the text as the music grew more complex, but it didn’t matter. The music conveyed the meaning.
On Photography ended the first half of the Philadelphia Singers’ season opener at Holy Trinity. The second half began with the world premiere of another piece that mingles science with linguistic tradition.
Ovid contemplates geology
David Shapiro’s Metamorphoses employs a Latin text by Ovid that includes a very modern view of the natural world, with references to the sea replacing the land and the land expanding as the sea retreats. Ovid’s overall theme is the endless change inherent in life, but his geological references reminded me of De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius— the book-length poem credited with introducing the idea of atoms into Western intellectual life.
Shapiro’s setting for unaccompanied double chorus mingles Ovid’s Latin text with a simultaneous English translation. Its musical embellishments include a passage that sounds like a kind of hip-hop Latin chant, as well as other sections in which the music suggests time’s relentless drive.
It’s another piece in which the musical complexities eventually overwhelm the words and the loss of linguistic coherence doesn’t matter. The music communicates the message, and the complexities create a satisfying texture.
The Philadelphia Singers have modified their programming and are now emphasizing the American choral tradition, at least in the concerts they present on their own. They perform more familiar works, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in their role as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s resident chorus. The American emphasis exploits one of David Hayes’s strengths: You could hear his conviction and understanding in every one of the four pieces he led on this All-American program.
The program opened with another recent entry: Bar Xizam ("Upward I Rise"), a 2007 work by Abbie Betinis. Bar Xizam sets a text from the Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism; its words describe souls liberating themselves from life and rising to a higher state.
For her basic musical image, Betinis opens the piece with a sonic image of confinement: a chorus humming with closed mouths. A soprano call of “Bar Xizam” breaks into the hum, liberating a portion of the chorus, and the unbinding continues with cries from other soloists.
But that overall structure is only one of the musical devices Betinis plays with. She also works with techniques like a type of scale that creates an illusion that the music is continuously rising in pitch without reaching an end point. The result is another very effective setting of an unfamiliar text.
The solo outcries are obviously a critical element. The Singers once again proved that a chorus of professional singers can call on soloists in every position.
Death to nonbelievers
The program’s least satisfying work was the oldest. Randall Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom has been a popular item with choruses since Thompson composed it in 1936, but I found it obvious and repetitive, with musical effects that sounded like they’d been thrown in just to create some variety, whether they fitted the text or not. Its best moment is the quiet picture of desolation in the fifth section, which provides a break from the preceding melodrama.
I also had trouble with the text. Despite its title, The Peaceable Kingdom sets a long passage from Jeremiah that includes a detailed description of the terrible things that will happen to those who fail to accept the Lord. Half the text regales us with goodies like the reassuring promise that their young men will be dashed to pieces and their children won’t be spared.
The Peaceable Kingdom sounds like it was written in a time when audiences wanted to flirt with new works but didn’t want them to be too novel. The 21st Century listeners in the audience at Holy Trinity enjoyed The Peaceable Kingdom more than I did, judging by their applause and the comments I overheard, but they greeted the three newer pieces with equal warmth. Upward we rise.
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