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.