Camerata Singers

Two for two

By Scott MacClelland

The most ambitious program to date got its best performance to date from John Koza’s Camerata Singers. Its program’s “crown jewel” was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms for which the chorus was accompanied—wrong word as I will later explain—in a four-hand piano arrangement played by two of Monterey County’s most valuable pianists, Pauline Troia and Lucy Faridany.

Most local volunteer choral programs take the form of samplers, a variety of shorter works in contrasting styles. The days of large-scale choral pieces with orchestras are long gone, with the exceptions of an annual Santa Cruz Symphony concert and the Carmel Bach Festival. The rest of Koza’s program did consist of shorter bits, but all delivered with high discipline and exciting effect. Moreover, some of them were no less challenging than the Stravinsky itself.

For example, Himne by South African composer Roelof Temmingh (1946-2012), an extraordinary piece which concentrates a bewildering array of different styles and tricky tropes that could easily go off the rails—but didn’t thanks to Koza’s confident and disciplined singers. By the time Temmingh composed Himne, he had come back toward tonality but had not forgotten such earlier influences as the avant-garde Hungarian composer György Ligeti, much less his own daring, mercurial manner of sliding between styles and moods. His mastery of dissonance at times resembled the weird harmonies of the disturbed late-16th century Italian Carlo Gesualdo. Then again, some of his harmonies were celestial and haunting like those of the American Alan Hovhaness. Pianist Troia also had her hands full with his exotic, even erotic, effects. And all of this to the glory of God! (I believe Camerata’s late founder, Vahé Aslanian, would have been astounded at where his chorus is today.)      

Faridany provided keyboard support for Benjamin Britten’s whimsical Lift Boy. Eric William Barnum’s a cappella Dawn, to a poem by Robert Bode, meditated deeply, quietly on the “last morning,” a glimpse of eternity perhaps, lingering on a harmonically ambiguous “…this.” Trioa supported “Wedding Chorus,” a prothalamion by Ben Jonson that appears in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ In Windsor forest, a cantata derived from his Falstaffian opera Sir John in Love. A major Symphonie Constanthighlight of the concert was Up to the Mountain, songwriter Patty Griffin’s homage to Martin Luther King that took words and phrases from King’s last speech. Composer Mac Hall arranged the gospel-flavored song to include chorus. For the performance, soprano Symphonie Constant (right) was the lovely soloist, her singing style also gospel informed. (She was one of six Camerata Futures singers from Salinas High School who were arrayed in front of their adult colleagues.)

As Koza explained, the four-hand piano reduction of the Stravinsky was no longer available, so he was advised to let the two pianists “figure it out.” Easy for him to say. But figure it out they did, and the result was a revelation! Stravinsky’s orchestration, sensational as it is, at times seems to compete with the substance of the words. (Same thing in his opera The Rake’s Progress and its great WH Auden libretto.) Troia and Faradany’s reduction illuminated the amazing choral writing in all its glory. At times, they, the pianists, were the stars, the main event, and displayed brilliance in their achievement. And after their preparation—I think Koza said eleven rehearsals—the chorus was securely on its game where expression surpassed technique. Isn’t that the name of the game?    

The program was framed by scenes from Aaron Copland’s rural coming-of-age opera The Tender Land, beginning with “Stomp your foot”, a celebration of life and labor on the farm, and ending with “The Promise of Living” which praises peace and love with the same revivalist song he used two years earlier for “Zion’s Walls” in his second set of Old American Songs.