I Cantori

By Scott MacClelland

CYRIL DEACONOFF, the new conductor of I Cantori, the Carmel chorus that still bears the stamp of its first conductor, Sal Ferrantelli who retired after 35 years, threw down a formidable gauntlet in its seasonal program at Carmel Mission. Heard Sunday evening, his own Canticles of Love, Despair and Hope, in its West Coast premiere, was a triumph, for them and for him.

The basic requirements for creating an artistic success are: intensity, coherency and efficiency. (The latter is sometimes called ‘economy of means’ or ‘resourcefulness.’) This work contained them all. And it packed a seemingly contradictory amalgam of texts by Emily Dickinson and San Juan de la Cruz, a 16th century Carmelite, counter-reformation priest from Spain whose “studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature.”

In his program note, Deaconoff explains what these two have in common. “A deep intensity of feeling in expressing the emotions of love, despair and hope from both a sacred and profane perspective.” An orchestra, an organist, two soloists and a largely amateur chorus singing in two different languages with limited rehearsal time had to learn and master a completely unfamiliar 25-minute cantata. Demands like these are annually tackled at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz but rarely by Monterey County’s even most professional musicians. Moreover, the soloists—soprano Katherine Edison and baritone Reg Huston, both in fine voice as the bride and bridegroom—were often singing different texts simultaneously in their dialogs to the words of John of the Cross. (This dialog between the bride (the soul) and bridegroom (Christ) crops up often in the sacred cantatas by JS Bach.) For the sake of coherency, as Deaconoff plainly understands, this kind of ‘conversation’ can work only in a musical setting.

And that comes to the music itself. Deaconoff is altogether a modern composer, yet one who has deep knowledge of his predecessors across the generations and their techniques. This work is tonal—as in not atonal—yet fully adventuresome in terms of contemporary possibilities and quite fearless in exercising them, including orchestrations and instrumental configurations. His only miscalculation was engaging the large Casavant organ in the choir loft at the rear of the church which initially overwhelmed the orchestra up front. But the intention was clear enough and lessons, if needed, will be learned.

The dialogs from John of the Cross occupied the central second movement, lasting about ten minutes. (Another composer—even Bach—might have spread it out, have given each side of the ‘chat’ its own space.) Deaconoff’s concentration of material and, to his credit, relative transparency of textures was brilliant. (I wish he had done it again as an encore.) John’s text, with embellishments, returned for the final movement, an extravagant Gloria, framed by the chorus randomly talking instead of singing, with string tremolos and the return of the two soloists, again highly concentrated yet always coherent. (I must add that new pieces at Cabrillo are not always thus.) Dickinson’s verses opened the piece with “One joy of so much anguish” and carried the third movement, “No ladder needs the bird but skies,” which Deaconoff calls the “scherzo” of the work, that crescendoed to a full stop on “Come unto me, the moiety that wafts the cherubim.”

Though I don’t believe it was another ‘miscalculation,’ Deaconoff’s  piece entirely overshadowed the longer first half of the program, a rich pageant altogether worthy of the occasion and of I Cantori’s historic tradition. The chorus entered from the back of the nave singing, totally on pitch, the unaccompanied “Serenísima una noche,” by Gerónimo González, a 16th century Portuguese, which had been prepared to emphasize the contrasts of forte and piano. Some familiar Christmas charms followed in old and new arrangements that alternated from a cappella to instrumental accompaniment.  

Conrad Susa’s 20-minute Carols and Lullabies capped the first half with a wide-ranging assortment of Spanish melodies first performed in 1992. (Susa [1935-2013] was no stranger here having attended the performance of his Transformations in the mid-1970s and the West Coast premiere of his opera Black River in the late ‘70s at Hidden Valley.) Susa’s program note said of the ten Spanish carols and lullabies, “I juggled them around to form a narrative. I noted their many connections with Renaissance music along with their homey, artful simplicity.” With harp, guitar, marimba and bells, the piece was designed to complement Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Indeed, the ten movements retained that homey, artful allure, and drew solo voices from the chorus into four of them. Only in the slow “Las Posadas” did the chorus lose focus.  

This concert revealed Deaconoff as both master conductor and composer, a most memorable introduction to a highly original talent that the I Cantori singers and instrumentalists alike rewarded with flying colors.