I Cantori di Carmel, May 1

By Scott MacClelland

A BOUQUET of musical flowers perfect for Mother’s Day sounded Sunday, one week ahead of the ‘you better not forget’ holiday, at Pacific Grove’s First Methodist. The so-called “butterfly” church is nicknamed after its unique stained glass window that celebrates the local Monarch insect. And as founding music director of I Cantori di Carmel Sal Ferrantelli made mention, this was the specific venue where I Cantori made their debut 35 years ago.

Titled “Musica Primavera,” the program sampled short works that ranged from the English and Spanish renaissance to a startling new piece by 36-year-old American composer Joshua Shank, and included both serious and capricious bits from every era in-between. In several instances, solo voices were drawn out of the 57-member chorus, as for instance the Kyrie from Ariel Ramirez’ Misa Criolla. That work became world-famous in a 1968 recording conducted by the composer and featuring the solo voices of a group called Los Fronterizos. In that case, the three male voices were intensely powerful, almost demanding mercy from God and Christ. In this case, the appeal, by three sopranos, was far more subdued and, in a word, humble. The three were backed by the chorus and drum.

The Ramirez was among the opening Hispanic set that began with the Kyrie from Missa ego flos campi by 17th century Spaniard Juan Gutierrez de Padilla. Right away, Ferrantelli’s skills with phrasing and dynamics were obvious. Miguel Matamoros, Cuba-born in 1894, produced a heartsick love song called Juramento (oath). It included percussion as would the dancing second half of Geronimo Gonzalez’ Serenissima una noche, a charming nativity villancico from 16th century Mexico.

The mood then changed to love madrigals by Elizabethan composers Thomas Tallis and Robert Morley, the latter exclaiming ‘Fire, Fire!’ and full of ‘O help me’ and ‘fa la las.’ Tallis’ In manus tuas (“Into thy hands, O Lord”) restored gravitas and featured anguished chromatic lines. From 16th century France came Pierre Passereau’s witty chanson Il est bel et bon, two women gossiping about their husbands, while cocks crow.

The longer second half opened with the rarely heard choral version of Gabriel Fauré’s PaulinePavane, with pianist Pauline Troia providing the orchestra part and the solo flute of Laura Cohan. (Troia, pictured, served I Cantori with rock-solid instrumental support in every piece on this program except the a cappella ones; for those she tuned the singers.) The pastoral text alternates between the women’s chorus and the men’s, then the two groups together. The verses, by Robert de Montesquiou, are pretty silly as the young lovers quarrel, but the effect was delightful. Some challenging choral songs by Brahms and Mendelssohn found the chorus in fine shape and confident. Brahms’ lilting Am Donaustrande (from Liebeslieder Walzer) only whetted the appetite for more of these tuneful choral waltzes.

Joseph Haydn was represented by “The marvelous work” from the oratorio The Creation, which featured soprano Jody Lee in an exceptionally fine solo. It was followed by “Eie Mater, fons amoris” from the composer’s Stabat Mater. Then came the Shank piece, Musica animam tangens (“Music touching the soul”), which calls for a lot of close harmonies and their resultant dissonances. Assistant conductor Susan Mehra provided skillful leadership in this demanding, exciting and ultimately ecstatic music. With a bundle of originality, Shank can take his place alongside such other living choral composers as Morten Lauridsen, Caroline Shaw and Eric Whitacre.

Arrangements of American traditional music concluded the afternoon, starting with James Erb’s beautiful weavings of Shenandoah. Like the Fauré, it began on the women’s voices, then the men’s and finally brought them all together (Note to Sal: the Missiouri River does not flow through the Shenandoah Valley.) Wendell Whalum’s arrangement of the Spiritual The lily of the valley could have rocked more. But William Dawson’s In His Care-O certainly set that Spiritual in full motion.