For this concert, C4 supplemented their member choir with additional singers: in all, 13 women and 12 men performed. The effect of this enlargement was predictable: while some of the chamber music intimacy of C4’s typical performances was lost, a bigger choral sound emerged. Happily, there was no compromise to C4’s key qualities: voice and section balance, clean and complete control of even the most complex rhythms, clear enunciation, lush expressivity and graceful intelligence.
As usual, the loosely theme-based program – in this case, water – encompassed works in several languages and traditions. On this particular evening, C4 presented material in English, Japanese, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish; texts included poems by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Frost, Misuzu Kaneko, Fernando Pessoa and Frederico Garcia Lorca as well as little-known poets or the composers themselves, and occasional texts such as liturgies and newspaper accounts (including one memorable Finnish Broadcasting Company story translated into classical Latin).
Unfolding naturally from this diversity of languages and contexts were the different composers’ explorations of various musical genres and styles, whether imitating them, experimenting with them, mining them or bracing against them.
Concerts like these are delightful: each piece – eleven in this program – is its own tiny microcosm, sometimes fully revealed and sometimes merely hinted at. But inherent in this familiar C4 format is a risk: the glimpse into each composer’s thinking is often frustratingly brief.
One special feature of this concert was also a mark of C4’s maturity and clout as a musical organization with a well-deserved reputation for excellence: they sponsor the IGNITE commissioning competition. In the 2017-2018 season, C4 received over 300 submissions; from these, 20 finalists were chosen, and from these, three winners were chosen. C4 member Martha Sullivan wrote about the selection process in the typically informative program notes. “Tonight, after careful rehearsal, we share the winners … They showed us works they had already created, and we responded by asking each composer to create something new, something that would be born here and now, with C4 and you are privileged to witness this birth.”
The third-place winner, Lucas Marshall Smith’s Hide and Seek, a musical setting for one of the composer’s own poems, was conducted by long-time C4 member, Timothy Brown. This eight-minute piece, described by the composer as “an abstract representation of the desire for human connection,” opens with blended humming and then moves to complex, engaging harmonies; many parts and voices play at and with each other in this dense, mature piece and then arrive at tender sweetness in the concluding two lines, “I can’t sleep; I can’t sleep without the colors …”
The second-place winner, conducted by Benjamin Arendsen, followed immediately. Los Angeles-based Filipino composer Nilo Alcala set Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” to music of cascading, lush and generous sound. From within the large choral music, soloists soprano Artemisz Polonyi (one of C4’s most beautiful and skilled singers) and alto Maya Webne-Behrman offered extended, poignant individual lines of song; the wide and deep dynamics of the piece, ranging from near reverential pianissimos to huge, exultant fortissimos, provided compelling descriptions of beauty and its memory.
The first-place, ‘winning’ winner, presented in the second half of the concert was Massimo Lauricella’s Para além, conducted by Daniel Andor-Ardo. This single movement seven-minute piece examines the wide, eternal sea’s ability to summon up feelings of both fear and yearning. The close music writing overlaps wave-like harmonic shifts and widening semitone intervals to culminate in several peaks of what the composer calls “chorality.” The concluding unison of voices represents both the resolution of musical questions and an affirmation of “the courage to want something.”
It’s hard to know whether the C4 commissioning competition judges made the right choices of third, second and first – some audience members discreetly debated, perhaps first should have been second, or third first – because the three works, each so different from the other two, were equally marvelous. The augmented chorus size certainly enhanced all three performances; the consistent excellence of these works is testament to the seriousness and reach of the C4 competition.
The eight other works on the program – pieces by Vince Peterson, J. D. Frizzell, Julian David Bryson, Carlo Vincetti Frizzo, Jaako Mäntyjärvi, Wilma Alba Cal, as well as works by C4 members Timothy Brown and Bettina Sheppard – shone. Especially marvelous were the opening work, Peterson’s Full Fathom Five, which functioned as a strong introit for both the concert and its music theme, Timothy Brown’s Drip Dream, which received its wittiest performance to date, and Frizzo’s prayerful Fugue with Robin and Dogwood. Mäntyjärvi’s Canticum calamitatis maritimae, a shipwreck narrative and requiem ballad was eloquent, elegant and deeply moving.
C4’s 2017-2018 season has been extremely strong and satisfying. One looks forward to next year!
C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective presents Water Music (June 9, 2018)
The Chruch of St. Luke in the Field’s, 487 Hudson Street, in Manhattan
For more information, visit http://www.c4ensemble.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission