Saturday, November 6, 2021

Choral Contemplations and Visions at the Segerstrom

The Pacific Chorale, divided into three for Hyo-Won Woo’s Me-Na-Ri (Space Music),
at the start of their “welcome back” concert.


Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

Rachmaninoff working at his
Ivanovka estate, c.1910.
I suppose it would be mischievous to speculate whether concert promoters sometimes use the title “Vespers” for the great a cappella sacred work which Sergei Rachmaninoff completed in less than two weeks of January and February 1915 because the more correct title might provoke alarm amongst potential audiences. And indeed, though far from lasting all night, at close upon an hour the piece does present a formidable listen.

However, the return to the Segerstrom Concert Hall platform of the Pacific Chorale under their Artistic Director Robert Istad could not have been more warmly welcomed, and their performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil Op. 37 that was the main item, filling the second half (and with the bass Ryan Thomas Antal in the first, mezzo-soprano I-Chin Betty Feinblatt in the second, and tenor Nicholas Preston in the fourth and fifth of the work's 15 movements), showed the Chorale to have lost none of its security of pitch, clarity of articulation, and control of dynamic and rhythmic nuance, despite the long Covid-enforced absence.

Robert Istad.
In its masterful choral writing, great beauty, and sustained elevation of mood, All-Night Vigil is clearly a masterpiece, and Rachmaninoff is said to have regarded it as one of his two favorites amongst his own works, the other being the choral symphony The Bells Op. 35, written two years earlier (now that, sung by the Pacific Chorale with the Pacific Symphony at very full strength in the Segerstrom would be quite something!).

Nonetheless, to listen with sustained attention and comprehension was a challenge, not only because this essentially static and contemplative music, however beautiful, requires “different ears” from the "classical" developmental style of so many Western orchestral and instrumental works, but also because the translated supertitles of the text—normally to be welcomed for works sung in languages other than English—were distracting here, dragging attention away from the music per se to its specific, and repetitive, religious devotions, sometimes clumsily expressed.

That said, however, All-Night Vigil could not have had more fervent and accomplished advocates, resolving one to explore further a genre of 19th- and 20th-century Russian sacred music that stemmed originally from Rachmaninoff’s admired model Tchaikovsky, whose fascination with traditional chant led to his own settings of this and other Orthodox texts.

Damien Geter.
Three 21st-century works by living composers filled the first half of the concert, the longest and last-performed being Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, written in 2020 by the Portland, Oregon-based composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter (b.1980) for the Washington Chorus but, due to Covid, receiving its live premiere here at the Segerstrom, with the soprano Aundi Marie Moore and Warren Hagerty, principal cellist of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, joining the Pacific Chorale.

The concert program notes (by Dr John Koegel of CSU Fullerton, and a model of their kind) discussed in detail Geter’s creative response to his chosen challenge: “inspired by the death of George Floyd, to write a work that would present a hopeful vision for the future in the midst of strife, inequity, and struggle…” His starting point quotes directly from J. S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 12, Weinen, Klagen (Wailing, Crying), with the solo cello acting as continuo, but this first of the five brief, linked movements (entitled “Fear”) segues at its midpoint into the African-American Spiritual idiom that imbues the remainder of the work.

Aundi Marie Moore.
The solo soprano leads off the second movement, “The Prayer”, and indeed, the performance thereafter was dominated by the vibrant stage presence and voice (but amplified—why?) of Ms. Moore. YouTube has a recording of the Washington Choir performing the cantata, but in this the third movement, “Breathe”, is overlain by literal breathing, medical machine beeps, and other “atmosphere”—I much preferred the straight account by the Pacific Chorale, who also sounded more numerous and vocally secure.

Inevitably, as with the plethora of artistic responses to 9/11, there is the question whether works that react to tragedy can ever “measure up” to the significance of the real-world event. And is it even meaningful or appropriate to ask? Also, can a work thus prompted, with “hopeful” in its very title, avoid seeming naive in its optimism, as one might also ask regarding, say, the intoning of “Deep River” at the end of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, a work like the Geter inspired by an atrocity?

For me, the most telling element in Geter’s cantata was the cello which, after its Bachian initiation, and in addition to its accompanying function, sometimes moves into strange independent areas of its own, even seeming at times to undermine rather than underscore the “feelgood” mood. One thing Geter’s work is not is opportunistic—his career embraces his African American heritage and embodies a commitment to draw together the worlds of Black and “classical” music. His An African American Requiem is to be premiered next year; it will be well worth looking out for.

Tarik O'Regan.
Geter’s work was preceded by a Pacific Chorale commission, also delayed by Covid from 2020. This was The Stillness Chained by Tarik O’Regan (b.1978), a setting of texts by the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (1875-1947). Its soft bitonal clashes and slowly shifting harmonies were delivered with devoted poise and accuracy by the Chorale, the sense of unresolved, poignant ache reminiscent of the work of Morten Lauridsen.

Hyo-Won Woo.
This was in complete contrast to the opening piece, Me-Na-Ri (Space Music), composed in 2005 by the Korean Hyo-Won Woo (b. 1974). From its gong-crash beginning to murmured close, the piece employs a startling range of spatial, dynamic, and timbral resources. Separated sections of the choir, on the stage and spotlit on the side aisles, chant and vocalize wordlessly to a repeated three-note rhythm on a Korean drum.

A distant soprano solo (Jane Hyun-Jung Shim in this performance) blends with the choirs, the two in the side aisles slowly move forward to join their on-stage fellows, syllabic chanting quickens and builds to a furious percussion-driven crescendo (masterfully played by Sangyoun Park, below right), which is dramatically cut off at its peak. Then a long, slow diminuendo… and fade to black. It was a masterfully dramatic opening for the Pacific Chorale's return to the concert platform. 


Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, 7pm, Saturday, October 30, 2021.
Images: The performers: Doug Gifford; Rachmaninoff: Wikimedia Commons; Damien Geter: Resonance Ensemble; Tarik O'Regan: Frances Marshall Photography. Hyo-Won Woo: Courtesy, Phoenix Chorale.

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