The Cantate Chamber Singers performed for the first time in two years on Sunday afternoon at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church. A lot has happened in the meantime, and as music director Victoria Gau noted on Sunday, “we haven’t been able to process this in real time with you, as we like to do with our music”.
To catch up, the ensemble created two works, one about the pandemic and the other about the murder of George Floyd and the public reaction that followed.
Cantate’s effort to engage with current events is admirable, but the two billed works have proven to be unequal.
by Charlie Barnett I hold your name has been inspired by the disruptions of the pandemic. The composer stages a poem written by Adrianna Smith, whose music Lucy Brown McCauley later choreographed, with dancers Alison Bartels, Elena Olshin, Patrick Green and Dustin Kimball skillfully performing Brown McCauley’s moves on Sunday.
Smith’s poem begins with a striking image: “We have seen the spring bloom [from] behind our windows/mouths covered and mouths agape. But after that, his text offered mostly mundane generalities like “Wait, wait. So many things have changed.
Its setting is also repetitive, as when the women sang a phrase first, then the men, in an all-too-obvious show of pandemic separation. The music also abuses the devices with a rumble pattern separating the sections, which stopped feeling threatening by the end. Rhythms and harmonies seemed tame and lacked crucial contrast. Ultimately, Brown McCauley’s choreography evoked images of collaboration and separation more effectively than music or text.
Just one was composed by Cantata keyboardist Andrew Earle Simpson shortly after the murder of George Floyd. The text was provided by another Cantate member, longtime bass Roberto N. Ifill.
Simpson’s music sets a marching tempo at the start, and drummer Chris DeChiara leads the music. The combination crackled with intensity, although on Sundays the drums sometimes drowned out the chorus.
Simpson’s declamatory text-setting style suited Ifill’s hard-to-sing words like “involved” and “reflective”. At times the forward momentum meant the music slipped past the words, but Simpson paused to create dramatic musical effects in certain verses like “We talk in awkward circles / We fall back into silence”.
Just one ends with its most arresting moment – the chorus singing the words “I’m just the one”, meaning the person who can make a difference, and supporting the word “one” as Simpson and DeChiara tattooed wild dissonances and martial drumbeats, showing that making a difference would still be a struggle. These measurements showed the potential for Just one, and perhaps a judicious revision could make the work even more solid.
There were a few shrill top notes from the sopranos at high volume, but the skills of the cantata singers showed more in the shorter pieces that provided the balance of the program.
Of particular note is the subtle and luminous staging of a text by Hildegard von Bingen by Karen P. Thomas, Caritas Abundance, and the detailed craftsmanship and intricate harmonies of James Lee III’s setting of the text of Psalm 51, A pure heart.
The concert began with an unbilled overture, the Ukrainian national anthem, followed by a poignant moment of silence—another example of the Cantate Chamber Singers’ laudable efforts to reflect the world around them.