Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On: Cantata Singers Make Magic with English Choral Works

Cantata Singers
Friday, January 14th
Music of Elgar, Finzi, Holst and Vaughan Williams

When you go to a Cantata Singers concert, you can always be assured that the programming will be interesting and the performance standards will be high. For example, McDoc and I agreed that the diction was excellent on Friday evening (kudos to vocal and diction coach extraordinaire, Allison Voth!). But the performance went far beyond simply being well-done. From the opening tenor line of Gustav Holst‘s The Evening-watch to the closing orchestral chords of Ralph Vaughan WilliamsRiders to the Sea, there was a palpable sense of magic in Jordan Hall.

While listening to that tenor line, by the way, I felt a sudden, deep desire to go home and write some choral music. That pure musical impulse is a rare and beautiful thing. Too often, it gets toxically diluted with guilt or envy, as in, “Oh, if only I could write something as good – I’d better go try!” or, “I can do that, and even better, and I’ll prove it!” Anything that rekindles one’s love of music is a precious gift. As far as I was concerned, Cantata Singers had done their job within about eight notes.

Lucky for all of us, though, they didn’t stop there!

David Hoose conducts Cantata Singers

The first half of the program consisted of unaccompanied choral works, adding fellow early 20th-century English composers Edward Elgar and Gerald Finzi to Holst and Vaughan Williams (the featured composer for Cantata Singers’ current season). The two Elgar pieces, Weary Wind of the West and The Prince of Sleep were beautiful, and beautifully sung, though they sounded a touch old-fashioned to me after Holst’s open-fourth-based harmonies. But the texts of these first three pieces united them, with repeated images of stillness and sleep. (I wonder why poets like to write about sleep so much, and why singers like to sing about it?)

The centerpiece of this group was Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs, which were lively and charming. I enjoyed the onomatopoeia of the repeated “ding-dong” figures in “Full Fathom Five,” on a text from Act I of The Tempest. “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers,” from Act IV, included the famous lines,

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

…continuing the sleep theme! I was struck by the harmonic shift at the very end of this piece, which reminded me of the final “Amen” of Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem, composed ten years later.

Three folksong arrangements completed the first half of the program: Vaughan Williams’ “Loch Lomond,” for tenors and basses, featuring tenor soloist Richard Simpson, and Holst’s “My Sweetheart’s like Venus” and “I Love My Love.” One might worry that “Loch Lomond” (“Oh, you’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye…) would risk sounding trite and sentimental, but I found this performance warm and appealing.

At any good choral performance, you can usually tell by looking at the choir members that they enjoy what they’re doing. But here especially, you could see, hear and feel their love for the music in their facial expressions and physical presence. You could feel that the audience was enthralled, too – there was an audible group sigh at the conclusion of each piece.

When the first half ended, I was so transported that I found it hard to imagine taking in anything more. But I was curious about Riders to the Sea. Vaughan Williams called it a music-drama, which is a term composers use when, for one reason or another, they aren’t quite comfortable calling something an opera. And indeed, it lacks certain features one might expect from an opera, like a love story or stand-alone arias. It does have tragedy, but unlike a typical opera that begins with love and ends in tragedy, this piece is tragedy all the way.

Riders to the Sea, based on the play by J. M. Synge (best known for another play, The Playboy of the Western World is set on an island off the West coast of Ireland. Its central character is Maurya, who has lost a husband and four sons to the sea. When the piece opens, her fifth son is missing, and she tries to dissuade her sixth and last son from sailing for Galway. By the end, her fears prove to be well-founded.

If you just read the libretto, you can’t help but find the whole affair unrelentingly woeful:

MAURYA: They are all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south… I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.

But Vaughan Williams’ sensitive treatment of the text adds another dimension, ennobling the work’s humble characters by honoring their human experience of fear, loss and facing mortality, our own and that of our loved ones. The music becomes more peaceful and transcendent toward the end, even as the words march toward resignation.

Riders to the Sea soloists take their bows

The soloists – Lynn Torgove as Maurya, Lisa Lynch as Nora, Claire Filer as Cathleen and Brian Church as Bartley – performed their roles with focus and commitment, and the semi-staged production was an unexpected theatrical treat at a choral performance.

Speaking of the theatrical element, conductor David Hoose brought stage director Alexandra Borrie on stage for a well-deserved bow after the performance concluded, and I couldn’t help but notice with some envy the fabulous dress she wore. I didn’t get a clear enough photo, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that this little black cocktail dress with its asymmetrical cut-out neckline was…

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Seriously, though, either of the two halves of this program were worth the price of admission alone. If you’re in the Boston area and have an opportunity to hear Cantata Singers, do not pass it up!

Miss Music Nerd Recommends:

Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea; Flos Campi; Household Music

There Is Sweet Music: English Choral Songs, 1890 – 1950

Gustav Holst: The Evening Watch and other choral music

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Friday News: Vaughan Williams in Boston, GRAMMY.com, and Theremin on TV!

PhotobucketHappy Friday, music nerds! I’m pleased to announce that my first grammy.com post is up! Click to sample some GRAMMY Classical Delights!

Furthermore, I will be interviewing several GRAMMY nominees in the coming weeks, so be sure to stay tuned! (I’m editing the first one now, which was conducted by phone with someone Very. Big. on Monday. I’m so excited!)

On the home front, tonight McDoc and I will be attending a performance by Cantata Singers, who continue their Ralph Vaughan Williams-centered season. The program includes a semi-staged performance of Vaughan Williams’ one-act music drama Riders to the Sea, as well as works by Edward Elgar, Gerald Finzi and Gustav Holst. Tickets will be available at the door, so if you’re in the Boston area and looking for something classy to do tonight, tell ’em Miss Music Nerd sent you!

No matter where you are, you can enjoy my latest find in the ever-popular Theremin category, which is dear to my heart, as many of you know. Click here to watch a character on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory expand the Theremin’s repertoire! (Tip: advance the video to around 14:30; the show will play after a commercial.) It’s already a very nerdy show, but it gets a tip of the nerd glasses for bringing nerdy music into the equation, too!

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Naked and Singing, Making Life Worthwhile

Boston Symphony Orchesra featuring Bryn Terfel: Music of Richard Wagner, Saturday, October 1, 2010
Cantata Singers Chamber Series: Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sunday, October 2, 2010

I didn’t expect to find much of a common thread between the two concerts I attended this past weekend, other than the fact that singing was involved. The contrasts were clear: the outsize grandiosity of the Wagnerian orchestra (Eight horns! Four harps!) versus the intimate chamber setting of the Vaughan Williams; dramatic bombast versus pastoral loveliness; mythic deities versus Vagabonds and Merry Wives; nineteenth century versus twentieth; German versus English.

And yet, these two programs illustrated what it means to love and live in music in profound and uncannily unified ways.

The weekend featured performances by singers at varying points on the music-professional spectrum, from international opera superstar Bryn Terfel, to local stars drawn from the Cantata Singers choral roster, who are active in music education and media in addition to their own impressive resumes as soloists. It was fascinating to see how each singer tackled the soul-rattling challenge of standing onstage in front of an audience with nothing but their voices to shield them from scrutiny.

Of course, every kind of musical performer puts themselves out there, but we often have props to mediate the nakedness of the experience. Instrumentalists have a hunk of wood or metal to hang onto, and plenty to do with their hands – heck, pianists and organists like me have large pieces of furniture to hide behind. But singers just have a body, and it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what to do with the crazy thing, especially when singing from memory, unamplified, with no folder, music stand, or microphone to serve as a musical worry stone. What’s more, pesky composers will often write long stretches of accompaniment where the singer is silent, and has to figure out what to do while standing there waiting for either their next entrance or the merciful end of the piece.

Bryn Terfel (photo: Brian Tarr)

Mr. Terfel had the particular challenge of standing through music that would accompany stage action in a full production. Watching him really brought home to me how singers have to be one hundred percent present and at home in their bodies from head to toe to fingertips. If you’ve ever had to stand in front of a group of people for any reason, you probably know how difficult this is; in such a state of heightened self-consciousness, we automatically adopt postures and movements that telegraph our anxiety and discomfort; it actually takes quite a bit of discipline and practice just to look natural. Mr. Terfel had complete mastery of this skill, and I found his performance thrilling. I always love it when an opera singer (or any singer, actually) can act in addition to singing.

In contrast to his commanding presence while in character, McDoc and I both noticed that he shifted to an unassuming graciousness once the music was over, always turning to face the instrumentalists as Maestro Levine acknowledged sections and individuals. He almost seemed reluctant to fully bask in the audience’s rapturous response, and to return to the stage as the ovations continued. McDoc, being more of a class-agitating rabble rouser than I am, attributes this to Terfel’s background as a farmer’s son. But we both agreed that when he started singing, it was clear he was doing what he was born to do.

Brian Church and Cantata Singers Ensemble (photo: Miss Music Nerd)

The Vaughan Williams program on Sunday showcased the soloists of Cantata Singers in a wonderful variety of expressive modes. I don’t think a savvy music lover could be faulted for expecting a Vaughan Williams song recital to be a lovely yet fairly monochrome parade of one singer after another presenting two or three shades of nostalgia and melancholy. But on this occasion, we were instead treated to a dazzling palette, touching upon so many fundamental elements of human experience.

Baritones David Kravitz and Alan McLellan conveyed the longing for home in “Linden Lea” and the Songs of Travel; the alternating joy and heartache of love were amply represented, notably by soprano Lisa Lynch in “Goodbye” from Along the Field, and mezzo-soprano Carola Emrich-Fisher in “Tired” from Four Last Songs. The pitfalls of enmity and avarice were searingly conveyed by soprano Angelynne Hinson in “The Song of Vanity Fair,” from Pilgrim’s Progress, and tenor Jason Sabol in “A Poison Tree” from Ten Blake Songs.

Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford discover they have received identical love letters from John Falstaff (photo: Miss Music Nerd)

I was pleasantly surprised by the dose of gently farcical comedy, administered in two excerpts from the opera Sir John in Love: “When Daisies Pied” and “Thine Own True Knight.” The scenes were charmingly acted by Majie Zeller, Sara Wyse-Wenger and Ms. Emrich-Fisher. And on the other end of the expressive spectrum was the uplifting and redemptive spirituality of the Five Mystical Songs, with baritone Brian Church supported by vocal ensemble.

The first page of Cantata Singers’ season program book (an edifying document worth the price of admission in itself) features a quote from Vaughan Williams that includes these words:

Why Do We Make Music? …we do not compose, sing, or play music for any useful purpose. It is not so with the other arts: Milton had to use the medium of words whether he was writing Paradise Lost or making out his laundry list; Velásquez had to paint both for his Venus and to cover up the dirty marks on his front door. But music is just music, and that is, to my mind, its great glory.

I confess that I sometimes feel jaded, skeptical and world-weary; I wonder if this rather ridiculous profession of music is at all useful or worthwhile, or if it’s just a luxury, an expensive hobby that doesn’t feed the hungry or cure the sick. (Just ask McDoc about my existential angst – he deserves a medal for putting up with it!) But when I manage to get my butt on the piano bench or in a concert seat and shut off my monkey mind for a while, I’m re-converted. The soul has to be fed, too, and it’s a musician’s job to do so, both for ourselves and our audiences – everyone for whom life wouldn’t make sense without it.

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Not With A Bang, But A Hymn: Cantata Singers Presents Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Cantata Singers Chamber Series
Vocal Solo and Ensemble Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Sunday, October 3rd, 2:30pm
Longy School of Music
1 Follen Street, Cambridge, MA
Admission: $20 at the door, or click here to purchase

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of getting to know Cantata Singers, a Boston choral group founded in 1964. The group began with the mission of performing Bach cantatas, which were not widely known at the time (such a state of affairs is hard to imagine now, isn’t it?). Since then, they have expanded their programming to include works from five centuries, including the present one. For the past few seasons, they have chosen one composer to focus on; last season, they changed my mind about Heinrich Schütz. This coming Sunday, the group kicks off a season-long celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I won’t need any convincing here — I’m just going to bask!

PhotobucketI sat down recently with Allison Voth, Music Director for the group’s Chamber Series, to talk about their upcoming concert (among many fascinating things), which will feature selections from the composer’s extensive repertoire of songs and hymns for soloists and small ensembles. She has a very interesting and varied musical career, which includes writing supertitles for opera productions, a deeply fascinating and music nerdy topic that I plan to bring you in the near future! But for now, let’s meet Allison and talk about the fabulous concert she’s presenting this weekend.

Here’s one of the pieces you’ll hear… Then click Mr. Readmore below for the rest of the story!

Mr. Readmore says read on: Continue reading

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