Like most C4 concerts, this one had a theme: it was an evening of “songs about love – both for and against.” Songs’ ideas and purposes mirrored, echoed, anticipated and challenged each other. The organization of this program, however, was unusual. Small groups of songs from a single piece – internationally acclaimed Bernard Rands’ 1991 Canti d’Amor, settings of James Joyce poems – framed both the concert as a whole and both of its two parts: Rands’ Joyce songs opened the concert, closed the first half, opened the second half and then closed the concert.
Rands’ choral writing is lyrical and rich, graceful and evocative. He exacts considerable technical virtuosity from the singers he writes for and elicits from them an overall sound of deceptive simplicity. Canti d’Amor was originally a Chanticleer commission; the adaptation for C4’s four-section SATB structure felt very natural in this performance. Canti d’Amor consists of 15 songs, 13 of which C4 performed; they are settings of poems by Joyce. Rands’ particular gift in these songs is his exceptionally subtle illumination of Joyce’s texts.
Joyce himself was aware of the musicality of his poems: in both metre and sound patterns, they invite music. In 1907, Joyce wrote his brother Stanislaus about the poems, “Some are pretty enough to set to music. I hope someone will do so.” More than some composers who’ve set Joyce’s poems to music – Geoffrey Moyneux Palmer, Samuel Barber and, more recently, writers associated with R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Pink Floyd – Rands closely associates music with the poems’ texts; Rands successfully elicits the mood, the moment, the image, the imagined story associated with each song and reveals both literal and suggested meanings of Joyce’s texts.
Though initially associated with Chanticleer, especially after their 2000 Grammy award, Rands’ Canti d’Amor has been performed successfully by several choral groups. C4’s performance of these songs was especially beautiful. Subtlety, elegance and welcoming intimacy marked C4’s singing; C4 captured Rands’ gradations of tone from delicacy to earthiness, reverence to sly wit. C4’s presentation of Rands’ Joyce poems set the rich, nuanced tone for the whole concert.
The second piece of the concert was the North American premiere of Estonian composer Mirjam Tally’s “Sinu Vari,” a nine-minute piece of rare beauty. Connecting voices with ambient recorded electronic sounds and pastoral bells, the music evoked otherly paradoxes and spacious mystery. Emptiness is its own completion; shadow and light depend on each other for their very existence. The repeated word ‘God’ was at once punctuation and oxygen. Half prayer and half tone-poem, “Sinu Vari” is a ravishing piece of music.
The world premiere of C4 bass singer and composer David See’s “Two Poems by Robert Herrick” (1591-1674) followed. “An Ode for Him” was an elegy of gentle, earthy mourning; it was a deliberate, slow piece but conductor Martha Sullivan, with her typical adherence to both clarity and musicality, never permitted any intrusion of maudlin blur.
“The Kiss: A Dialogue” was a delight, a stronger composition than “An Ode for Him.” Herrick’s fanciful discourse – part mini-play, part riddle festival – on both the psychology and the physiology of a lovers’ kiss was wittily and deftly set to music in Herrick’s own lifetime: Henry Lawes (1595-1662) including “The Kiss: A Dialogue” in his Ayres and Dialogues. David See’s setting is sweetly jazzy and musically witty. The C4 singers make See’s rhythmically demanding score seem effortless. Elements of Herrick’s poetry seem to anticipate the crispness of human experience that Joyce’s poetry, especially as illuminated by Rands, embodies; See’s music writing – more sly and overtly funny than Rands’ – shares Rands’ musical sophistication. The inclusion of some of Rands’ Joyce songs with See’s “The Kiss: A Dialogue” constitutes a particularly nice bit of C4 programming.
The fourth piece took the musicians and audience away from physical kisses to mystical unions: Polish composer Michal Ziólowski’s “Evening Star,” a setting of the Edgar Allen Poe poem, was lush and painterly. Ziolkowski’s writing for women’s voices is particularly satisfying. C4 can create a movement from pianissimo to silence of near unparalleled depth and spaciousness; this skill is particularly invaluable in pieces like this.
The second half of the C4 program, though beginning and ending with Rands’ Joyce songs as the first half had, contained the “love, for and against” offerings referred to in the concert title.
Long-time C4 singer and composer Mario Gullo wrote his Anti-Love Songs to poetry by Pamela August Russell taken from her 2009 collection, B is for Bad Poetry. These short poems are almost all wickedly funny: they are rollicking commentaries on modern love relationships, scenes of romantic mistakes and miscommunications collapsed into vignettes of loopy absurdity.
Gullo’s bright, smart music balances modern savvy and timeless optimism. He is a skilled, sophisticated composer: he can evoke styles and traditions – narratives, dialogues, duets; jazzy cool, show-tune glamor – with easy economy. Even when working with familiar stories, he avoids clichés; he has the intellectual wherewithal to ensure that send-ups of absurdities don’t devolve into silliness. The C4 singers, including those with ‘solo’ turns, clearly relished singing their colleague’s material – a total of ten Anti-Love Songs – and conductor Perry Townsend kept the fast-moving work in clear, clean control.
The second-to-last work was a Townsend piece, conducted by Karen Siegel. Don’t Ride Off is more a spoken-song than a traditional song. The text consists of “found” – heard, picked-up – phrases of New York City commuter train and subway travel. The piece is an irony-rich examination of a moment of human experience: it’s both particular and universal, rooted in time and untethered. “Step on and off quickly” is an exhortation equally relevant to subways and to life’s tough times. To the extent that this piece is a love-song to commuters, it fit – however tenuously – into the concert’s theme. Its smooth, skilled execution by the C4 musicians did make Don’t Ride Off cohere with the rest of the concert.
This was a splendid concert. C4’s upcoming season is likely to be as strong as usual. New York continues to be lucky to have C4 in its midst.
C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective: “Love and Other Stories” (November 9, 2017)
The DiMenna Center for Classical Music
450 West 37th Street, in Manhattan
For more information, visit http://www.c4ensemble.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with one intermission