Ensemble Monterey and Cantiamo!, May 14

cabrillo chorus

By Scott MacClelland

THE ‘LOUD MUSIC IS BEST’ crowd got a serious blast of it Saturday inside Carmel’s San Carlos de Borromea Basilica—named for the 16th century bishop and uncompromising inquisitor of Milan—now just five years shy of its 250th anniversary. Between the complement of 11 brass and the two antiphonal Casavant organs, plus percussion, the old mission church itself vibrated from foundation to rafters. This was Ensemble Monterey’s last program of the current season, suitably titled Fanfare! and included Cantiamo!, a carefully selected chorus of 30 voices, which, in honesty, got their best showing when the instrumental complement wasn’t pouring it on.

A goodly audience filled the first half of the mission church—probably including some who wished they had sat farther back along with those of us who value our hearing. Even so, the organ in the back balcony loft made sure no one could entirely stay out of the line of fire.

To be fair, there were plenty of moderations among the mixed menu on offer. Cheryl Anderson’s Cantiamo! entered down the aisle to the thrilling ritornello from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, here set with the words “Domine ad adjuvandum me” as it opened the composer’s later Vespers of 1610.

Vocal pieces alternated with instrumental ones. The Monteverdi was followed by a Grand Choeur Dialogue for brass and organ, each giving as good as they got, from 1880, by Eugène Gigout. In turn came an Alleluia for chorus, exotic percussion, piano and solo horn (played by John Orzel) from Missa Kenya by American composer Paul Basler, who in the 1990s taught at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. The piece was both complex and beguiling in its swaying rhythms.

Back to the Baroque for short brass settings from Henry Purcell and an exciting motet for double choir and instruments by Giovanni Croce, who composed antiphonal works for St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Jumping forward, organist Tiffany Bedner got stretched by the repetitive fingerwork demanded by the popular toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony by Charles-Marie Widor.

First time for me was the Festive Entry of the Knights of the Order of Saint John by Richard Strauss, a splendid display for brass, percussion and organ. (Ensemble Monterey conductor John Anderson’s program note said it was originally written for a frightening 15 trumpets, 11 additional brass and percussion. Better out of doors.)

The first half continued with Oculus non vidit of 1993 by a talented Latvian named Rihards Dubra, yet another of the current generation of startlingly original choral composers, including Eric Whitacre, Anna Clyne and Caroline Shaw. It was set in an A-B-A form where the B quieted down to repeat a phrase of text over and over, then returned climactically to the closing A. Eschallet ihr Lieder from JS Bach’s Cantata BWV 172—also A-B-A—went to the intermission with brass and organ ringing.

As the audience settled down for the second half, many of them literally jumped from their seats when Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man opened with a tremendous whack on timpani and bass drum. Organ was added to the instruments for Siegfried Karg-Elert’s antiphonal Praise the Lord with Drums and Cymbals, composed in 1909.

The chorus were utterly seductive in Abendlied, an unaccompanied setting by Josef Rheinberger of the text from St. Luke, “Stay with us, for evening is coming and the day is drawing to a close,” a vision of the risen Christ as testified by witnesses.

Some brass music by the 17th century Jeremiah Clarke led to the earlier and most festive setting of Jubilate Deo for all forces by Giovanni Gabrieli, intensely rich with both counterpoint and harmony plus polyrhythmic ‘twos’ and ‘threes’ together. It must have rocked St Mark’s in Venice when it was first heard.

Lastly, Norman Dello Joio’s To Saint Cecelia for brass and chorus of 1958—at 16 minutes the longest piece on the program—that sets the John Dryden text A Song for Saint Cecelia’s Day. Dryden’s 1687 poem defends harmony as the organizing principal of the universe—“From heavenly harmony this universal frame began”—“And Music’s power obey.” References to Jubel striking his shell, the loud trumpet, the jealous violins and the vocal breath of Cecelia’s organ proved irresistible to Dello Joio, who paints as much imagery as possible into his often-complex choral and instrumental textures. I choose to believe that Dryden had as much fun writing it. The piece was no walk in the park for these performers but it stood as the crowning achievement of a memorable concert.

Photo: Cantiamo! performing at Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz