C4’s last concert of the season was a typical C4 concert. The concert had one intermission; in both halves of the concert, there were one or two pieces that were new to C4 and one or two that they’d performed before. In this concert, there were also three premieres. Some pieces were a cappella; some were accompanied by a somewhat unexpected set of instruments, in this case, electronic … hence this concert’s name, “Electric: Choral works with electrified ensemble.” Almost all of the composers featured were either current or former C4 members; singers conducted each others’ works. Individual singers moved easily between solo parts and “just” being a section member. The extensive program notes were, as always, extremely useful.
The first piece Invictus, composed by C4 current member Casey Rule, was a fresh and original setting of the William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) poem originally published with no title. This short, five-minute work, divided into three movements according to the poem’s progress of moods, managed a rare feat: by means of dexterous, imaginative use of harmonies, Rule evoked the quintessentially Victorian spirit of the text while writing music that was distinct and modern. Rhythmic starts and syncopations together with melodic complexities established the specific anxieties of the “fell clutch of circumstance” which Henley, man and poet, faced. The third stanza – the poet’s confrontation with horror and fear – provided a pensive transition to the final harmonic grandeur of the poet’s victorious captaincy of soul.
Invictus was a good opening piece: it established the usual C4 control of musical intention and nuance, making complicated music sound easy.
The second piece, an uncharacteristically “old” work for C4 – composed by Anthony Korf in 1992 – was the four-movement Cantata, for chorus, soloists and a small chamber group consisting of keyboards, bass, electric bass, violin and percussion instruments. Each of the four texts – Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Recuerdo, e.e. cummings’ i carry your heart with me, a real-life friendship letter, and a second Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, Love is not all – focuses “on love in its less complicated, more innocent guises.” Each of the four short movements could stand alone as a choral piece; each had its own mood, and C4 displayed its usual facility for easy movement from one mood to the other.
e.e. cummings’ i carry your heart with me, with bass Casey Rule as soloist, was particularly fine. cummings’ poem is essentially the description of a single moment of longing, but in Rule’s well-shaped performance, the audience could imagine that the moment had a rich back-story to it, perhaps one to which the chorus was privy, and the song didn’t last as long as one would have liked.
The Letter to Andy – the text taken from an actual letter – presents love more as a child-like friendship of simple declarations. Soprano Artemisz Polonyi and alto Maya Ben-Meir presented a vivid and poignant duet, each voice offering another fragment, a different short request from within a single simple humanity. The interior landscape of the special-needs letter-writer – the vigorous, swift-spurt declarative expression of hope and want – was captured in the poignant, alternately straight-forward and syncopated rhythms.
Though Korf describes himself as influenced by artists as diverse as Bill Frisell, Quincy Jones, Arthur Prysock and the B52s, his overall musical signature is clean and clear; no matter what vocabulary or allusions Korf chooses to incorporate, his own mature coherence brings unity.
The last piece of the first part of the concert was the five Poemas de Amor, sensuous love songs collected from fifteenth and sixteenth century Spanish cancioneros. C4 was accompanied by Matthew Ward on various instruments such as xylophone and tubular bells. C4 brought out the full, caressing lushness of this music; the tubular bells evoked church bells, the sound of divine blessings on human passion, and called up imagined medieval stories of impossibly chivalric heart-quests. These poemas were ravishing songs from a composer who died too young.
The second half of the concert opened with the second premiere of the evening, Artemisz Polonyi’s TE, an inventive, virtuosic setting of a “cunning” contemporary Hungarian love poem by Zsuzsanna Ardo. Ardo, poet and painter, is a regular C4 collaborator; she and Polonyi created a literary-game poem — a linguistic gymnastics routine – around the singe vowel ‘e,’ and Polonyi wrote a sophisticated six-minute score to go with it. The piece opened with female voices offering middle-European folkloric motifs as the men carried a low cantus firmus; modernity, jazziness, sexy sway and fluid seduction then arrived in layers once the instruments joined the singers. The piece ended on a sudden single ‘te,’ a sweet, wistful tease floated out to the audience. Lovely.
Karen Siegel’s Suspicious Persons followed. One of Siegel’s singular talents is her ability to evoke and explore a moment, a mood, a state of being. Here, she has created a music depiction of contemporary global anxiety: her writing is tight and urgent as it sheds light on the moral insidiousness of the ‘See Something, Say Something’ political and social distrust we’re currently living with.
After Suspicious Persons, Nicholas Rich’s Standing Still At Dusk presented a different sort of examination of the moment. Here, a Matsuo Basho haiku is considered at a molecular-conceptual level: the syllables of the thirteen words of the frogs-at-dusk scene are each given their own sound-dance.
Sound-dances are, in fact, one of C4’s identifying preoccupations. Over the years, they have composed and have sung many works built just on particular syllables, or letters or sound sequences and patterns. Sounds in and of themselves are in fact an affirmation of C4’s commitment to clarity and accessibility of text: C4 enunciates so clearly, whether singing text (in any of the many languages they make their own) or just sound, that they successfully highlight the capacity of the human voice to be both language-bearer and instrument.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the last piece of the evening, Hounds of Spring, composed by C4 alumnus Jonathan David, had some balance problems: the words that C4 sang were sometimes hard to understand because of the loudness of the electric guitars. Nonetheless, this big piece – a lovingly intense experimental foray into the joining of a formal-choral style with a nostalgically remembered progressive-rock – is satisfying, accessible and affirming. The text, Swinburne’s wildly dense, Romantic search for passionate love in the archetypical guise of a spring-time deer hunt, embodies a cosmic urgency that shook one’s bones. Overall, Hounds of Spring was splendid.
In C4 performances, a spirit of welcome and invitation always radiates. Perhaps because collaboration rather than any sort of directorial autocracy lies at the center of C4’s identity both as a matter of intellectual principle and creative process, the presence of the audience seems to contribute to C4 concerts’ bracing and gracious atmosphere of aliveness.
The musicians of C4, their friends and audiences all have good reason to look forward to C4’s twelfth season.
C4, The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective: Electric – Choral works with electrified ensemble (June 10, 2017)
The DiMenna Center for Classical Music
450 West 37th Street, in Manhattan
For more information: visit http://www.C4ensemble.org
Running time: 110 minutes with one intermission