I Cantori in Pacific Grove

By Scott MacClelland

CONDUCTOR CYRIL DEACONOFF has certainly put I Cantori di Carmel chorus through some challenging paces since he came on board in the middle of 2018. For their Christmas concert, he threw them a surprise with a work of his own that in spite of early jitters turned out to be a surprising success. On Saturday at Pacific Grove’s “Butterfly” church, he introduced an enchanting choral cycle, A Pushkin Garland, by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), a major figure in late 20th century Russian music. It set to music ten poems by Alexander Pushkin (pictured), a nobleman who became Russia’s great romantic poet, whose maternal great-grandfather was African-born General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, and who died at age 37 following a duel. (Pushkin wrote the epic fairy tale Ruslan and Ludmila, the play Boris Godunov and the novel Yevgeniy Onegin, the first and last in verse form. All three would become famous operas by, respectively, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.)

Deaconoff took pains to point out the “folk tradition, nature and peasant life” in Pushkin’s verses and Sviridov’s music. Indeed, the music, lasting 37 minutes, seemed to take much less time owing to its charm, its contrasts of choral and solo writing, its use of space—in a poem titled “The Echo” a small chorus of two each sopranos, altos and tenors performed from the back of the church—and the variety of vocal and instrumental effects that drew their energy from minimal resources. In another song, “Reveille,” offstage soprano and alto conjured up the sound of crowing roosters. “A Grecian Feast” used orchestra bells, cymbal and harp, while “Camphor and Musk” availed the cymbal, piano and bass drum.

The poems were sung in Russian with English translation in the program handout and confirmed the character described in Deaconoff’s notes and remarks. In the playful “Camphor and Musk,” the poet complains that beautiful Leila has left him, to which she retorts “Your hair is all gray.” The poet responds, “Everything has its season. That which was once dark musk has now become sweet camphor.” Leila laughs, “Don’t you know, musk is sweet to newlyweds while camphor belongs to tombs?!” That was only one of several ‘love songs.’ In “Mary” the choral voices suddenly slid into descending chromatic (maybe intoxicated) lines. In “Arise, timid one,” which began with fugal imitation, the chorus softened down to humming when the focus went to soprano Gayle Smith and alto Laura Frank. The final number, “Magpie Chatter,” was a riot of choral sound effects that highlighted three chirping sopranos and two tenors. (Among the capable sopranos, Jody Lee produced a powerful tone that fairly challenged the church’s stained glass windows.)

The concert opened with JS Bach’s “Lobet den Herrn.” Even with piano accompaniment, the chorus was tentative and insecure at first. (Until now, I Cantori have called the Carmel Mission home for decades; the “Butterfly” is a completely different acoustic and, unfortunately, not insulated against traffic noise and, in this case, emergency sirens, on busy Sunset Drive.) But their confidence returned and in the second piece, the a cappella “Do, Re, Mi” Mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, smoothed into beautiful sonorities and textures. This sudden change could not be explained by being less of a challenge; Palestrina fabricated a theme from six tones of the diatonic scale and tortured it with all manner of polyphonic tricks. These excerpts from the full work lasted about 20 minutes in performance.

Also a cappella, and ending the first half, were the spiritual “Steal Away” as arranged by Joseph Jennings, a longtime conductor of San Francisco’s acclaimed Chanticleer, and “Tonight Eternity Alone” by American composer René Clausen, an impressionistic image of twilight turning into night after the Thomas S Jones poem “Dusk at Sea.”   

We hope more of Deaconoff’s discoveries appear on future I Cantori programs.