SC Chamber Players ‘American Voices’

By Scott MacClelland

THE RETURN OF Carolyne Anne “CA” Jordan to the Santa Cruz Chamber Players proved to be an even bigger triumph with them than her previous appearances in Aptos. On Sunday afternoon at Christ Lutheran Church, the SF Bay Area soprano made easy work of a daunting program full of vocal hurdles, which, not least called for plenty of stamina.

Fearless stamina in Jordan’s case, and a keen instinct for subtle expression. The latter point more so given the power of her instrument. Of the six works on the program she shared with flutist Kathleen Purcell, cellist Kristin Garbeff and pianist Kumiko Uyeda (pictured, Jordan second left), she sang four of them, opening with the exquisite but challenging Knoxville, Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. James Agee’s ‘prose poem’ ultimately served as the preface to his Pulitzer-winning novel A Death in the Family, published after his death in 1955. Barber not only knew Agee personally but felt a strong identification with the sentiments told through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a small town. The musical setting was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber who premiered it 70 years ago in Boston. Barber is well-known for composing haunting melodies as well as for brilliant orchestrations, yet he wrote his own piano reduction which put the burden of proof into Uyeda’s hands; as an orchestra of one she revived the 17-minute piece with a shrewd sense of the original. Between her and Jordan, the performance captured the almost heartbreaking innocence of Agee’s words, and the mostly-lulling sweetness of Barber’s music. But there are sharp jabs around that innocence, and a harrowing picture of an electrified streetcar, “the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit.”

In music sung in the high soprano register, the words become almost illegible to the ear. Wisely, the program booklet contained them. Indeed, all the vocal works came with the printed words, except Henry Cowell’s Toccanta, a ten-minute ‘suite’ that required Jordan to sing open vowels without words, another big challenge for the singer, handled with apparent ease. The piece itself, three movements and two interludes, was a fine reminder of Cowell’s originality and uniqueness; he was a major influence on subsequent generations of American composers, not least Aptos’ own Lou Harrison. The work called on all participants.

The theme for the concert was “American Voices” and included the 12-minute Suite No. 1 in four movements for solo cello by Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch. Bloch plainly had the Bach cello suites in mind, especially in the dancing final allegro. The lovely Canzona used plentiful portamento and double stops. I wasn’t the only string player in the audience who appreciated the difficulty the piece throws at its executants, in this case obviously Garbeff.

Composer Chris Pratorius Gómez was in attendance to hear his own A Dream Within a Dream, for which Purcell played alto flute as well as piccolo. The text is a sea-themed poem by Edgar Allan Poe, originally performed in Santa Cruz in 2011 by Jordan and Pratorius Gómez. The newly revised version called on the entire ensemble and included the recorded sound of waves crashing and seagulls crying. It’s a fine piece and it got an excellent performance. 

Composer Daniel Brown gave spoken remarks before the premiere of his setting of Tony Hoagland’s poem Personal, which is really a protest, indeed an angry one. It contains such lines as “Don’t take it personal, they said: but I did. I took it all quite personal”; “I don’t believe in the clean break. I believe in the compound fracture served with a sauce of dirty regret”; “I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard; barking and barking. trying to convince everything else to take it personal too.” Brown completed his setting of it early this year and explained that he invited Hoagland to attend the premiere but was dismayed to discover the poet was in last-stage pancreatic cancer. Brown and Jordan went into rehearsals immediately determined to record the work for Hoagland to hear, but they were too late; Hoagland died just three weeks ago. Jordan, Uyeda and Purcell made it very ‘personal.’

This unique and compelling concert concluded with Afro-American Suite by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), the granddaughter of slaves who became an outstanding musician and composer. Scored for flutes, cello and piano, it sets four instantly recognizable spirituals, “Brothers will you pray for me”; “I heard the preaching of the elder”; “Who is that yonder?” and “Shout all over God’s heaven.” This was so deftly and economically arranged that the force of the originals blazed right through. Or as Jordan wrote in her program note, “it hums and sings with the voice of spirit.”  

Jordan book-ended the program by encoring Barber/Agee’s miraculous “Sure on this shining night” as arranged by a UCSC graduate student. With what treasures we live!