Calling their 2015-2016 season “Cornerstones,” C4 is exploring musical and artistic themes that have established the group’s identity and excellence during its first decade. Their November program, vocal, included works by C4 composers, as well as others, familiar favorites and two premieres; the eleven works performed were conducted by seven C4 members.
The program was planned with exceptional intelligence. The works of the first half were all in one way or another about place and memory; and the works of the second, about memory, expectation and inspiration. The evening opened and closed with Emily Dickinson’s American-Delphic wisdoms, bookends to a wealth of musical experience.
C4 alto Bettina Sheppard’s Love is Anterior to Life layered Dickinson’s four lines about the preconditions of creation lushly on top of each other. Within the richly textured immersion of all the voices with each other, each individual line could be heard. From the opening notes of this first work on the program through to the concert’s end, the 23 C4 musicians were in absolute top form, singing gorgeously.
Following the Sheppard-Dickinson invocation of creation’s before and after’s, Donald Crockett’s Daglarym/My Mountains presented folk lyrics about lonely mountain landscapes of the tiny Russian republic of Tuva. The work is a luminous exploration of homes left behind and homes not yet arrived at, and a dance of lullabies that also serve as invitations to romance.
The third piece, Solace, was composed by William Bolcom to a poem by Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen written as a memorial to the lives of 20 students and adults lost to gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2014. The music is poignantly light and delicate, a dreamscape of children’s happiness, punctuated by periodic bells, as from a distance.
Jon Olmstead’s sweetly funky Bohemian Highway, whose text was the single word “Sonoma,” conveyed road-trips’ archetypical patterns of regular rhythms and syncopated ones, and constant forward movement, alternately soothing and enervating in feel.
The next work was a travel work, too, but one of complete mystery, at once seductive and eerily unfathomable. Joseph Rubinstein set Thomas Hardy’s dark, brooding “How She Went to Ireland” to music. The poem is about a woman, Dora, who goes by sea to Ireland … for reasons she “does not know.” In both Hardy’s words and Rubinstein’s music, the unknown abounds, powerful in its depth and width: we know nothing about this Dora who travels, the voyage itself or her reasons for traveling from the unspecified here to the Irish there. Rubinstein turns Hardy’s snow and loneliness, misery and drift into opulent, heartbreaking beauty: mystery itself both swoons and lures.
The first half of the program closed with Michael Dellaira’s acrobatic The Campers at Kitty Hawk, based on texts adapted from the Wright Brothers section of John Dos Passos’ “U. S. A. Stories.” The Campers is a wild and stirring thing: it’s near breathlessly fast and seems as unstoppably swift as the breaking-news, high-speed Morse code telegraph it imitates. The excitement of the new reality – the flying machine had come at last! – feels barely containable. But the C4 singers are supremely disciplined, and they make the proximity of edge-of-everything thrills to chaos feel giddy and exhilarating.
After the intermission, the first two pieces of the second half of the program offered a nod to the Advent season; in addition, both were premieres.
Gloria by C4 tenor Mario Gullo is the middle movement of an extended piece, Meditations for Christmas. Gloria is a shiny and exuberant presentation of God’s glory and the hope for peace on earth; periodically, some chords and brief melodic lines call up the mystery of divinity, but then a quick-step dance rhythm and a modern sense of fun – God’s capacity for play and delight – reclaim the theology of praise.
Immediately following were David Hurd’s Three Christmas Carols, In Principio (sung in Latin), Come Rejoicing (sung in English), and O Magnum Mysterium (sung in Latin). Taken all together, these songs are about mystery and marveling, about our human response to what we cannot possibly understand. Declaration, here, is a matter of joy. Come Rejoicing marries narrative to praise and foreshadows the story of salvation: the delicate dip in notes and intonation of the line “to human frame, now descendeth” anticipates Christ’s experience of human death. Hurd makes the text of O Magnum Mysterium entirely his own, a rare feat for any composer treating a text as well known as this: Hurd’s mysterium has light and sweetness at its core.
The text of Jonathan David’s Te lucis ante terminum is almost as familiar as Hurd’s O Magnum Mysterium. David takes the Vespers text and adapts a Dorian-mode Gregorian chant tune for it. As the variations gather quickly around and on top of each other, an unexpected sense of modernity manifests itself. As the choir layers and repeats the beautiful “collustret claritas,” exploring the brilliance and the warmth of God’s light, the soloist – here, Colin Britt – elegantly and eloquently begs God to grant our nighttime prayers for safety and protection.
The closing work of the evening was Bruce Saylor’s The Spheres at Play, a setting of three Emily Dickinson poems, There came like a wind like a bugle, Put up my lute, and Musicians wrestle everywhere.
Sheppard’s Dickinson song – the Love is Anterior to Life that opened the concert – had a liturgical quality to it. It was a spiritual assertion about love’s place and purpose in creations of all sorts: God’s creation, human creation and continuation, artistic creation. Saylor’s longer and more complex The Spheres at Play evokes the same sense of the sacred, and expands it, both containing and inhabiting Dickinson’s language and all its meanings. There came a wind like a bugle was wild weather itself in sound and pace; storms’ noises, both tightly angular and swirlingly curved, were audible in Saylor’s writing.
The “flying tidings” were both Nature and humanity’s: the self-announcing storm descends on human beings’ daily lives and alters their very architecture – “fences fled” and “houses ran” – while one single color, green, shifts shape from chill to ghost to slithering snake. And ultimately, the inhabited world somehow manages to carry on, purposes intact, with built bells to tell the story. At the end of the song, Saylor captures the peopled busyness of the abiding human world, and the poem is permitted to present many narratives: it is about the interconnected and enduring powers of nature and humankind, about the energies of destruction, creation and storytelling, about relationships between particular events and enduring time.
The second poem Put up my lute! in Saylor’s hands is lush and gorgeous; plaintive imploring is sensuous; the imprecation to awaken is both gentle and urgently pressing. If this poem is a call to the hearing of music, the third poem Saylor sets, Musicians wrestled everywhere, is about human activities and the quest for their connection to the divine, about art’s ability to create that connection, and about beauty’s essence – the play and movement, songs and sounds of the celestial spheres – as inspiration and illumination. The sopranos’ declaration, “I hear the silver strife,” shimmers over the big sounds of human engagement and the “crowded air.” The wrestling of Dickinson’s musicians, human and divine alike, has unexpected tenderness to it. Dickinson’s always rich sense of what is sacred is located in both the temporal and the eternal; Saylor’s music calls up the magic and myth that connect the two.
In each of the evening’s ten pieces, the C4 singers were remarkable. At a purely technical level, they are first rate. Individual voice and section singing are always absolutely clear; balances are managed almost perfectly. The singers are always where they should be; entrances are clean; complex rhythms are always precise and controlled. Individually and collectively, the C4 singers can stretch the reach of their voices and singing styles to include both “traditional” formal classical music and innovative, experimental music. In any language, their diction is more than exemplary: it is superb.
But their commitment to the difficult discipline of technical excellence is only the starting place for the story of C4’s achievements and success.
Virtuosity and technical control make daring possible; shared aesthetic standards and collaborative artistic and procedural decision-making clearly engender creative trust. As C4 members conduct each other’s works and sing them, and as C4 composers turn to colleagues to help them refine and shape new pieces, a repertoire of contemporary choral music has been built up and a “place” for courageous, exciting music-making has been established. Few other choral groups in this country or elsewhere have as innovative a mission as C4’s or have managed to create and maintain the same nurturing, delicate balance of artistic challenge and protection that C4 has.
And underlying all of this is the C4 musicians’ clear sense of delight and joy. When composers, whether in the audience or on the stage, are acknowledged after their pieces are performed – as Sheppard, Crockett, Gullo, Hurd and Saylor were for this concert – the pleasure of the singers is palpable, and the composers, no matter how modest or bashful, find themselves irrepressibly grinning as they briefly, awkwardly bow, and applaud the singers. The singers in turn radiate both easy camaraderie with each other and warmly happy affection for the music they perform.
During the course of this performance, there were two pauses in the music. During one, towards the end of the first half, C4 soprano Martha Sullivan addressed the audience to discuss important matters related to artistic community and financial support; she also gave a brief account of C4’s first decade of successes and made announcements about upcoming activities, including a performance at the American Choral Directors Association, Eastern Division Annual Conference in Boston in February, 2016.
In the second pause from the music, during the second half, Perry Townsend took “a moment to unpack some of the innards” of musical pieces and rhetorical devices; he examined especially the various effects of an ostinato motif (“it can be minimalism or accompaniment”), of melodies and their harmonizations, and of “babbling brook” repetitions in which the same line is repeated over and over, but at different speeds.
Sullivan and Britt’s brief presentations were both useful; each enriched the audience’s understanding of either C4’s practical operations or its music. But, over the course of its second decade, if C4’s visibility is increased, if its stellar reputation and audience reach can widen from New York City and the tri-state area to a national platform, then talks about fundraising and compositional strategies, no matter how brief, can give way to the performance of one or two more fabulous pieces of music.
The remaining “Cornerstones” 2015-2016 season themes, following this November’s “Vocal,” will be “Unusual” and “Organic.” On the basis of “Vocal”’s splendid success, C4 followers can only feel excitement about the rest of the season.
C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective: Vocal – C4 honors its foundations: music for voices alone (November 21, 2015)
The Church of St. Luke in the Fields
487 Hudson Street, in Manhattan
For more information, see http://www.c4ensemble.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission