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C4: Choral Composer/Conductor Collective: Organic – New Works for Choir and Organ

A daring and elegant collective of contemporary choral composers and conductors, no longer “new,” now well established, presents an evening of gorgeous music.

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C4: Choral Composer/Conductor Collective (Photo credit: Keith Goldstein)

C4: Choral Composer/Conductor Collective (Photo credit: Keith Goldstein)

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]The third and final concert of C4’s “Cornerstone Year” – their eleventh season, a celebration of their successful first decade and a happy anticipation of future achievements – was indeed wonderful: artistic elegance, technical virtuosity and intellectual breadth combined with a palpably joyful engagement with their work always make for splendid music-making …  and Organic – New Works for Choir and Organ was no exception.

C4 has always been driven by certain core values and goals; the particular repertoire “cornerstones”  being emphasized this season, as indicated in the concert’s program notes, were important but infrequently performed works, beauty, and the nurturing of new composers’ voices. This concert contained all these features in both recent works and four premieres.

The concert opened with long-time C4 member Perry Townsend’s Laudate Dominum. This setting of Psalm 117 opens and ends with triumphant calls to praise – praise as an act of energy and exhilaration – and contains in its center a tender, sweet “Gloria Patri.” In this eight minute work, the organ is an equal partner with the chorus, engaged in dialogue, rather than mere support or context; the work is short, but it provided a good, blockbustery opening for the concert.

Tarik O’Regan’s setting of Jacobean playwright John Fletcher’s Care, Charminge Sleepe is a beautiful piece of music: the writing is lush and densely layered. C4’s singing shimmered. Text and sound alike explored the in-between-ness of sleeping and waking. Liminality emerged as a theme of the evening.

C4 bass’ Hayes Biggs’ Fortunes Pantoum, music for a poem by American contemporary poet Jane Shore – a premiere – was lively and witty, an exercise in both seriousness and fun; voices were challenged to convergences and departures, as instrument-sounds as varied as finger-snaps, Chinese opera-gong and Vibra-Slap. Fortunes Pantoum is a smart, complex and demanding work, sung with verve and delight by C4.

Karen Siegel’s Impermanence followed. This work, originally composed for choir and electric chamber orchestra, and premiered here in a version for choir and organ, is complex and wonderful, one of Siegel’s best. Conceptually, this piece sets opposites against each other: fireflies, flowers, seasons and cycles dance in lyrics and music with the prophet Jonah’s wrestling with darkness and the deep. Two texts – a poem by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, sung by the women, and Jonah 2: 4-10, rearranged by Siegel, and sung by the men – interconnect and alternate with each other and the organ. Impermanence is a subtle and lovely piece; the conclusion – the women’s “Hold me” and the men’s “I keep looking for you” – was gorgeous, suggestive of both regret and possibility.

Mario Gullo’s O Oriens, also a premiere, is the third and last part of a suite of Christmas music, the winter solstice Christian litugical proclamation of light’s promise emerging from within the depths of darkness and shadow. This piece is steady and leisurely and then inevitably crescendos from evocatively penumbral quiet to lush, splendid sunlit exuberance; it is also a perfect match of composer and choir, writer and singers perfectly attuned to each other.

C4: Choral Composer/Conductor Collective (Photo credit: Keith Goldstein)

C4: Choral Composer/Conductor Collective (Photo credit: Keith Goldstein)

After intermission, the concert resumed with another premiere, a short piece by Jamie Klenetsky Fay, setting to music a two line Japanese poem of tremendous delicacy by Fujiwara no Tameie  (1198-1275). Fay’s music captures the ambivalences and ambiguities of the Japanese text, examining movement between quiet and sound, hush and harmony as a replication as “the edge of ceaseless clouds.”

Like O’Regan’s and Siegel’s works, Gallo’s O Oriens and Klenetsky Fay’s Tomaraji na kumo both explore the spaces between temporal, spatial and symbolic edges.

The final two pieces, by internationally well-known composers, were performed as a set: James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados was followed immediately by Arvo Part’s The Beatitudes. MacMillan’s work is devilishly hard, not merely because of its demanding macaronic text, but because of the near-violent emotionality of the music, soul-wrenchingly frantic and anguished at one moment and poignantly intimate at the next. The final quiet prayer, “Forgive me, companero,” was heartbreaking, both raw and serene.

Arvo Part’s well-known Beatitudes was beautifully performed. The crescendo of Gallo’s O Oriens had served as foreshadowing of Part’s great declaration of salvation and blessings. The singers managed Part’s subtly interconnected harmonic chord shifts and steady chant motifs with unerring loveliness; the work’s extended organ postlude was marvelously played by organist James Kennerley, Organist and Choirmaster at Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, where the concert took place. Kennerley’s  playing throughout the concert was first-rate: he understood in every piece all the nuances of the organ’s relationship with the singers and their texts.

C4 can do just about anything they set their minds to. This concert was as satisfying as their concerts always are. But with its repertoire choice – and its emergent themes of liminality, borderlines crossed and transitions made transparent – the music summoned, over and over again, C4’s capacity to produce astonishingly lush, sensuous, shimmery sound, fluid evocations of movement, memory and expectation. This gorgeous, distinctive C4 sound is one of its happiest strengths, and was on full display in this end-of-eleventh-season concert.

The audience contained C4 supporters, collaborators, friends and followers … and one lucky group of junior high school students from Atlanta, Georgia, the Atlanta Young Singers. Currently led by Music Director Paige Mathis, herself an AYS alumna, this organization, founded in 1975, brings together gifted young singers from all over Atlanta for several years of sophisticated choral music training with a special focus on new music. Mathis, a C4 colleague through Chorus America, brought the group to New York to hear this concert and others as well as to participate in a choral concert in Carnegie Hall. Before the C4 concert started, individual members spoke with the students, sharing with them insights into both professional choral singing and the evening’s music.

C4’s welcome for these students exemplifies C4’s collective certainty that the music made belongs not just to  musicians and the singers, but to listeners, too: as C4 member Martha Sullivan said in one brief conversation with the audience, the collective spirit of C4 “is not just us. It is you, too.”

How lucky we are!

C4: Choral Composer/Conductor Collective: Organic – New Works for Choir and Organ (June 9, 2016)

St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

552 West End Avenue at 87th Street in Manhattan

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Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with one intermission


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