Ensemble Monterey & Cantiamo! Cabrillo

By Scott MacClelland

TO CONCLUDE their 25th anniversary season, Ensemble Monterey and Cantiamo! Cabrillo handed out a lavish, full color souvenir program book in celebration of their world premiere of Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Sunset in My Hand, an original commission subtitled “Ancient Voices of the Wild Pacific Coast.”

Eriks-Esenvalds-OfficialFor the first of two performances, Ešenvalds (right) was present at Cypress Church in Corral de Tierra on Saturday. He had accepted the challenge and, from what I have learned, was working on it right up to the last hour. Four poems and John Steinbeck’s description of coast redwoods were set to music that, in concert, positioned Cheryl Anderson’s select chorus behind John Anderson’s orchestra, with Cheryl’s 30-plus member Cabrillo Youth Chorus on risers in front of the orchestra. Even before the children began to sing, it made quite a visual impression. (The Anderson’s are the region’s ‘power couple,’ he at Monterey Peninsula College, she at Cabrillo College.)

And it also hemmed in its composer to what, otherwise, might have been a more adventurous artistic vision; the music for the Youth Chorus was naturally scaled to the abilities of youngsters approximately 8 through 12. Still, Ensemble Monterey scored a highly musical coup for a colorful orchestra of winds, brass, strings and percussion. The Youth Chorus had memorized their parts and, as deployed, took their cues from Cheryl Anderson who was seated down front. She and they added that big ‘aww’ factor.

The piece opened with Cantiamo! Cabrillo and Ensemble Monterey in Sara Teasdale’s “The Storm,” a musical setting of great turbulence aboard a ship at sea that, ultimately, subsided into calm. The poet’s verse is as much metaphor as literal and Ešenvalds captured it in both senses.

Then the Youth Chorus streamed in and took their place before joining orchestra and chorus for Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Smell of Firewood,” an English translation by Joseph Stroud who had just previously recited the words. The children sat out Dana Gioia’s “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” an emotionally moving ‘beatitude’ memorial to the poet’s infant son. The piece was sung to the tick-tock of a metronome and included hand bells and solos on violin, flute and oboe.

The Youth Chorus participated in the remaining three settings, John Steinbeck’s awe-inspired description of “ambassadors from another time,” “Evening Ebb” by Robinson Jeffers (the children played triangles; one had a rainstick) and Grace MacGowan Cooke’s “I Hold the Sunset in My Hand,” the verse that inspired the title for entire cycle. The two choruses alternated, the one singing while the other hummed, with flute, violin and oboe solos.

This piece, which also includes tuned crystals and singing bowls, is already scheduled for its second production elsewhere. It will most certainly be commercially recorded. Each of its movements was sponsored by longtime Ensemble Monterey and Cantiamo! Cabrillo fans, as was the a cappella “The Long Road,” in which Ešenvalds set a ‘love’ verse by Pauline Barda. The complexly textured piece that climaxed on the words “High above the arch of heaven bends,” in which the chorus hummed crescendos and decrescendos. A native flute added a haunting echo. Though this was the Andersons’ introduction to Ešenvalds, the performance fell short of its inherent impact.

The concert opened with the 30-minute, three-movement piano concerto by the late Stephen Tosh. Soloist Leah Parker Zumberge gave it a fine, authoritative performance (and provided the excellent program note) as did John Anderson’s orchestra. I would be hard-pressed to say that Tosh’s style was independently clear because of its abundant echoes of Gershwin, Debussy, Ravel, Bernstein and other jazzy tropes. But ultimately, it’s a fine classically-formed work of impeccable craftsmanship.

The orchestras for the Ešenvalds and the Tosh were slightly different and a few of the instrumentalists’ names did not make into the program book. But everyone else involved, including all the children, did. An audience of about 300 fans pretty well filled up the hilltop Cypress Church overlooking the Monterey-Salinas Highway, and, at concert conclusion, gave Ešenvalds, orchestra and choruses, and their respective conductors, prolonged cheers and applause.