May 12, 2013

MUSIC: Sacred and Profane, May 12

Rebecca Petra Naomi Seaman, conductor

The program:
  • Henrik Ødegaard: Bruremarsj (Wedding March), from Fem slåtter (Five folk songs)
  • Edvard Grieg: selections from Fire Salmer (Four Psalms): Hva est du dog skon; Guds son har grort meg fri; I himmelen
  • Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller: Tre Madonnasange (Three Madonna Songs): Ave maris stella; Madonna over Bolgerne; Salve Regina
  • Jón Leifs: Requiem
  • Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Four Shakespeare Songs: Come away, death; Lullaby; Double, double, toil and trouble; Full fathom five
  • Lars Magnus Béen: Sköna maj, välkommen (Fair May, welcome)
  • Fredrik Sixten: Peace
  • Karin Rehnqvist: The Raven Himself Is Hoarse
  • Rehnqvist: I varje bit bröd (In every bit of bread)
I'd been looking for an excuse to spend a few days in San Francisco, and this concert from chamber chorus Sacred and Profane seemed like a good one. It's an adventurous program, and most of the composers are not exactly household names. The concert was a delight.

S&P is a chorus of about 2 dozen singers, and while their website doesn't say for sure, I believe they are entirely an unpaid group. They specialize in a cappella music, and while their repertoire does include some acknowledged standards, they lean to the unusual.

This program was called "Music of Transcendence: Songs from the North," and includes music from all five Scandinavian countries. (I had thought there were four, but apparently Iceland is now frequently included in the group.) The only piece on the program that I'd heard before (and that only in recordings) was the group of Shakespeare songs by Mäntyjärvi, which S&P delivered in fine style. They had great fun with the great swooping notes, frenzied chanting, and foot-stomping in "Double, double," and their "Full fathom five" had just the right eerie atmosphere. Perhaps it's just a side effect of the relative familiarity, but I thought it was the highlight of the concert.

The other name that intrigued me was Leifs, who I've heard about on many occasions, but  whose music I've never had the chance to hear. He is almost always described as Iceland's greatest classical composer; given how little music we hear from Iceland, I was curious to learn whether that was a significant achievement, or something more akin to being the most sophisticated guy in Bugtussle. His Requiem is a short piece -- none of the individual pieces on this program were more than 7 or 8 minutes long, I don't think -- and he uses none of the traditional Latin text, opting instead for selections from Icelandic folk poetry. It's focused on the sad, serene mystery of death, with none of the fist-shaking anger we sometimes get in Requiems. It's not really enough exposure to his music to decide whether he's a genuinely world-class figure, but he's certainly more than Mr. Bugtussle.

The men and women of the chorus each had a chance to shine on their own. The men were at their strongest of the day in Béen's Sköna maj, an arrangement of a traditional tune that is a standard part of Swedish spring festivals; it comes across as a cross between glee club and barbershop, Swedish style.

The women's solo moment came with Rehnqvist's The Raven Himself Is Hoarse, a setting of one of Shakespeare's monologues for Lady Macbeth. It was an intense and fully committed performance that called for the women to sing in their highest and lowest registers, often to deliberately unattractive effect. The program notes say that Rehnqvist is a favorite composer of S&P; based on the two pieces we heard to today, I can't quite see the appeal.

I was more taken with the Sixten,  a setting of John 14:27 written in memory of the victims of a 2011 terrorist attack in Norway. The music and the text are very much in tension -- you've never heard so troubling a setting of "let not your heart be troubled" -- but it's a lovely piece, and the choir handled the difficult dissonance very well.

Intonation is, in general, one of Sacred and Profane's strengths; I suppose if a chorus is devoted entirely to a cappella music, it had better be. Their balance and blend are also quite good. And while I can't speak to the accuracy of their Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, or Swedish, I can say that they were at least in agreement about which sounds they wanted to make. And when they were singing in English, their enunciation was excellent; I found myself having to glance at the program for text in those moments where the word choice had gotten particularly Biblical or Shakespearean.

Were these absolutely ideal performances? No, probably not. But the problems that Sacred and Profane has are the problems you'd expect from a very good chorus  that's working to become a superb one. Entrances were occasionally somewhat tentative, particularly from the men (it is always harder to find good male singers than female). The sopranos tended to be shrill in their highest register, and the overall sound is notably less rich and solid when singing quietly. (At full volume, though, the chorus is capable of a beautiful, robust tone.)

But when a chorus is offering programs this unusual and challenging, those quibbles seem even more quibble-y. To hear this music at all is a marvelous opportunity; to hear it sung this well is a spectacular one.

1 comment:

Lisa Hirsch said...

There's some Leifs orchestral music on Bis; well worth picking up. I think of him as the Icelandic Janacek: you could never mistake his music for anyone else's.