I Cantori di Carmel

By Scott MacClelland

When Sal Ferrantelli auditioned to serve as conductor of the newly formed I Cantori di Carmel community choir, he thought he’d already been hired. (He was the new choral man at Monterey Peninsula College, all those decades ago.) After that awkward encounter between the ‘new’ chorus and the ‘new’ guy, he was finally embraced with open arms. That embrace continues to this day.

Yesterday, at Pacific Grove’s “Butterfly” church—the only building in Monterey County whose architecture is supported by flying buttresses—an ensalada mixta of twelve ingredients prefaced a complete performance of Gabriel Fauré’s consoling Messe des morts (Requiem), a work that is guaranteed to swell an audience since everybody loves it. Well, not everybody; the composer’s junior colleague, Francis Poulenc, hated it. (I don’t know specifically why, but I have a pretty good idea: the piece does layer on some gratuitous sentimentality.)

In this case, the performance fully engaged its executants. In the moment, they believed, or at least they were seduced. Ferrantelli insightfully added five string instruments to the in-house organ effectively imitating the cut-down arrangement Fauré himself had made, only missing the sound of trumpets that punctuate the Dies irae section of the Libera me Domine movement. Moreover, Ferrantelli kept the work moving forward deliberately, the better to keep its ‘sentiments’ from growing maudlin. For its solos, Ferrantelli drew forward choir soprano Tamara Sommerville and engaged the always-reliable, ubiquitous bass Art Schuller. The overall result was most satisfying.

But the first half—the ensalada—proved the more interesting. If the programmatic thread seemed obscure—“In Nature’s Realm” followed by “In The Realm Of The Spirit”—Ferrantelli’s program notes shed John Wilbyemore light. The opening madrigal, Flora gave me fairest flowers by John Wilbye (1574-1638),—pictured—challenged the choir with its canonic textures and tricky rhythms. It, and the ensuing Amarilli, mia bella, are both love songs disguised metaphorically. The rightfully famous latter, for expressive solo voice by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was heard here in Marion Vree’s four-square choral arrangement that, underpinned by the church organ, gave it an altogether religious cast. Antonín Dvořák’s Slender Young Birch charmed with its folkloric allusions, as did Britten’s The succession of the four sweet months to words of Robert Herrick. (Since you asked, they are April through July.) A standout of this set was Britten’s The Evening Primrose, to a verse by John Clare. Max Reger’s Schwäbisches Tanzliedchen, another love song—or lovesong dance—was pure rosy cheeks, peaches and cream. Finally, Morten Lauridsen’s unmistakable style permeated Dirait-on, a narcissistic “French” folksong organized melodically, then canonically, from material borne of the single chord heard at its start.

The second group opened with A Simple Song from Bernstein’s Mass, a song that is anything but simple. It’s Bernstein struggling to come to terms with his God. Ferrantelli’s choral arrangement beautifully preserves the composer’s anguish and doubts. The choir’s lead alto, Susan Mehra, stepped in to conduct a short but beguiling motet, Diffusa est gratia, by Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis. As he did in so many of his works, Maurice Duruflé drew on Gregorian plainchant for his Tantum ergo.

Rossini concluded the concert’s first half, beginning with the spooky Quando corpus morietur (When my body dies) from the great, proto-Verde Stabat Mater, first performed in its completed version in 1833. The Kyrie and Cum sancto spirito from the even later Petite messe solennelle gave permission for the enthusiastic audience to step outside into the sunshine that so happily made liars of our local meteorologists.