I Cantori di Carmel

By Scott MacClelland

Lehmkuhl closeupWITH TOM LEHMKUHL at the helm, it’s a whole new ballgame for I Cantori di Carmel. The Saturday debut at Carmel Mission was nothing short of a revelation as the new conductor took the 47-member chorus through seven brief 20th and 21st century originals (plus one from the early 1890s*) and arrangements, that stretched into every technically challenging corner of the choral arts. Indeed, from the start the chorus never sounded more polished or self-assured.

And that was just the first half; though I had to leave at the intermission, it was enough to make vividly clear Lehmkuhl’s impact, which has been in development only since he came on board last summer. Lehmkuhl’s impact on the audience was equal, thanks to his illuminating and often personal program notes.

The concert began with “Consecrate this Place and Day,” Andrew Marvell’s 17th century verse celebrating Saint Cecelia and her feast day in a bracing a cappella 1969 setting by American composer Lloyd Pfautsch, This was followed by four “Songs of Devotion” and “Two Folk Songs from the Isles.”

The first set opened with Charles Villiers Stanford’s *”Beati quorum via” (Blessed are they whose road is straight, who walk in the law of the Lord) from Psalm 119, chosen here for “these turbulent political times with its call for integrity (‘integra’).” This is music of transparent purity but also demands that its contrapuntal lines remain in good balance.

Gwyneth Walker’s 2000 setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, in memory of her mother, is a heartfelt utterance with textures from simple to complex and rich diatonic harmonies. The poem is a metaphor of life passing over the ‘sandbar’ into the unknown. With Pauline Troia at the piano, and using dynamic contrasts with skill, Lehmkuhl drew a passionate performance from his singers. Troia continued in Morten Lauridsen’s popular and widely-performed Prayer, of 2012, to a touching poem by California Poet Laurate Dana Gioia in memory of his infant son. The poem is filled with impressionistic imagery, the music tender and quietly exalted.

With drum and tambourine, the chorus then introduced Zikr (“devotion”) by AR Rahman, written for a documentary film, implicitly echoing Lehmkuhl’s nine years teaching choral and vocal music in India. Rahman scored the well-known Slumdog Millionaire, in which Lehmkuhl had a small role. The vivid text and energetic setting extol the virtues of devotion in Islamic terms generally and Sufism in particular, as the dervishes whirl. The audience, which had warmly rewarded each foregoing piece, erupted in cheers at this one. Safe to say nothing like it had been heard in this venue before.

The first of the two isle folk songs was Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield’s arrangement of the Cuban folksong Son de Camaguey, full of Afro-Cuban rhythms and declamatory vocal writing and rosewood claves that celebrate the Camaguey province in all its natural color and ambience. Then American composer Randy Haldeman’s arrangement of Verduron, in the French dialect of the English Channel islands off the coast of Normandy and Brittany. This charming flirtation tells of a young maid who has fallen into a tight spot and needs help to be retrieved, offered by young men who want only a kiss for their trouble. Once more, Troia gave support from the keyboard, playing the dance tune Dans Loudieg, while the music gained boisterous energy and the chorus kept the tricky rhythms clear with clapping hands. No small counterpoint added to the enriching texture.

While the second part of the program contained a Magnificat by Francesco Durante, a contemporary of JS Bach, and a Christmas cantata by Michael Haydn, in which the chorus was accompanied by the Monterey String Quartet, the first half gave plentiful evidence that I Cantori now sounds ready to tackle and master any challenge thrown at them.

Hidden Valley Strings

Supermoon

By Scott MacClelland

IT HAS TO BE THAT SUPERMOON. Without cold or dark, it was night nevertheless on Saturday afternoon at Hidden Valley Theatre in Carmel Valley. Stewart Robertson introduced a program of nocturnal music and Roy Malan led his band of 15 crack string players—16 including Malan as concertmaster—into a mystical world of dreams and visions, culminating in the great Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) of 1899 by Arnold Schoenberg. That 30-minute work which began life as a sextet for violins, violas and cellos is better known in the version heard here, the second revision (1943) of the original. In the late romantic style, part Wagner and part Brahms, it is eminently coherent in both form, tonality (D Major and Minor) and narrative, making it both a “tone poem” in the manner of Liszt and a classical sonata.

Schoenberg’s mastery of tonal relationships gave him the sure hand he needed to ‘translate’ the German poet Richard Dehmel’s rhyming verse into a soaring, arching musical meditation. The text deals with a betrothed couple on an evening stroll during which the woman confesses that she is pregnant by another man and berates herself for her “sin.” In a clumsy translation from the German, the fiancé says to her, “May the child you conceived be no burden to your soul. Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming! There’s a glow around everything; you are floating with me on a cold ocean, but a special warmth flickers from you into me, from me into you. It will transfigure the strange man’s child. You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine.” You can hear all of it in the music, the distress, the tension, the magical transfiguration and resolution.

Malan’s orchestra is, if anything, better than ever. His wife Polly is a terrific principal violist. The principal second violin, Susan Freier, another strong presence. He has recruited Rebecca Jackson, the Santa Cruz violinist who founded her own Music in May chamber music festival and is active on the San Francisco musical scene. Jonah Kim, the new principal cellist of the Santa Cruz Symphony is also on board. I do injustice to the others by not naming them; suffice to say this is a first-rate ensemble.

To open the program Grant Jean Paul Bogart’s recent arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de lune cast a spell. Then came the first and third movements of Manuel Ponce’s Estampas nocturnas (Nocturnal prints) of 1923, respectively La noche, a darkly ominous mood, and Arrulladora, a lullaby. (Robertson had warned that some of this music might be sleep-inducing.) And just before intermission, the familiar Notturno from Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet in D.

Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik would have provided a more familiar touchstone but the large audience turnout suggested an appetite for something rarer.