Sunday, April 11, 2010

600,000 Swedes do WHAT?

Yesterday I was invited to attend a concert given by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under the direction of their highly renowned Swedish conductor, Ragnar Bohlin.
Because of his background, they presented a very unusual and interesting program with the first half consisting of works by a variety of Swedish choral composers spanning different time periods. The two folksongs that concluded the first half were an especially wonderful glimpse into a part of Swedish culture, harmonies, dark humor and folkloric tales. I would have loved to hear more of them!
But the central point in the first half was a very contemporary account of the ascent out of hell from Dante's Divine Comedy, called "....a riveder le stelle" by Ingvar Lidholm (1973) and I believe that the final 2 minutes of this piece was one of the very few times in my music-listening life that a performance left my jaw "on the floor" - eyes wide and mouth hanging open, you get the picture - this was absolutely astounding in both the music composition itself and the exquisite, incredible performance given by the chorus and the soprano soloist for this piece, Pamela Sebastian. At this point in his piece, the composer was using the portion of Dante' text to portray "We climbed, he first, I following, till to sight Appeared those things of beauty that heaven wears, Glimpsed through a rounded opening, faintly bright; Thence issuing, we beheld again the stars" the time that the choir was singing about "a rounded opening" the composer had created the illusion of this vast cavernous sound space, through the juxtaposition of two different chordal tonalities alternating at different dynamics and timbres in the choir sections, and all of a sudden it just simply "opened up" and the lone voice of the soprano positively soared upwards in ecstatic arching phrases, like a soul released heavenwards in repeated but gentle bursts of energy - and one's ears could honestly "see" the stars twinkling. Even now in remembering that moment the sense of the musical and spiritual power of that composition and performance is renewed within me. The piece was fairly long (14 minutes) and the first 12 minutes or so did not leave any particular impression, other than a lot of polytonal and poly-rhythmic angst, but in retrospect it was necessary to portray the struggle on Dante's "secret road" to get upwards out of hell, and most definitely needed in order to set up the powerfully unmistakable sensation of reaching the light - and most definitely worth listening to, in order to arrive at the experience of those last two most incredible minutes of music making. If you can find an online recording of this piece, do give it a listen although I suspect that the live experience is necessary for the complete 3D effect of the sound caves and the soprano floating upwards through the "hole" they create. It also goes without saying that the choral conductor's technical/musical expertise and confident leadership is absolutely paramount to "pull this off" to such rare effect and Ragnar Bohlin is the leading interpreter of Swedish choral works so we were fortunate to hear it in San Francisco.

The Chorus itself, as a nearby colleague remarked, is very clearly "American" in its bright-edged sound and range of timbres. The singers have amazing technique, particularly for singing contemporary or dissonant works, and entire sections of the chorus came in confidently on obtuse pitches from seemingly "out of nowhere" during difficult unaccompanied works. The blend within sections was usually excellent, particularly amongst the tenor and bass sections - very occasionally individual women's voices would "pop out" of the whole in soprano or alto section solos.

The second half of the program featured two very beloved choral works - segments from Rachmaninov's "Vespers", and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. I personally thought they did a wonderful job with the Bernstein and it was, afterall, written for American choral groups and audiences. I thought the organ solo seemed too unwaveringly metronomic but maybe that is the way Bernstein's markings request it to be played or conducted. The entire work is brilliantly composed and I love the piece, but in listening to the opening two sections I suddenly wondered why the Bernstein estate has not tried to sue Andrew Lloyd Webber for completely "stealing" entire fragments from this piece for use in his Requiem and some of the musicals.....?

The Rachmaninov "Vespers" left a different impression altogether.......absolutely gorgeous sound, radiant non-screechy (as they can often get in this work) sopranos, a tenor solo (Vesper No 4) like velvet, Vesper No2 having the chorus parts floating in heaven with the wonderful alto soloist providing a contrast down in earth, lovely dynamic shading of the phrases and great ensemble singing in Vesper No3, radiant light in No6.......all in all, amazing choral technique and lovely sound that let in much "light" - BUT, as colleagues around me also felt, the entire performance did not feel as if one had heard Rachmaninov nor "Russian" prayer music.....nor experienced any of the culture that Rachmaninov was sharing through this intentionally spiritual piece. While we were admittedly not in a Russian Orthodox cathedral or monastery or even a San Francisco church, for the piece itself to have its true power to reach the souls of its listeners I believe we would have liked it to be slower, more personally expressive and a touch darker/richer in vocal colors - or in effect, more "prayerful" rather than fascile, light and rather faster than we are used to hearing/performing it. One audience member (who said he has sung this work many times in a variety of settings/cultures) commented that it was perhaps the placement of the Vespers in the program that bothered him - with the "brash American" sounds of the Bernstein coming immediately afterwards, the Vespers came across as simply a "Russian choral piece" being demonstrated on the program for a demonstration of choral repertoire because all potential meaning or experience was forgotten once the opening of the Chichester Psalms began. He saw this programming more as a sad commentary on our tendency to always have "loud, fast, or showy" works trump the "soft, slow or spiritual" ones. I would love to know others' thoughts on please, send in your comments!

Personally I wondered if the conductor's pre-performance research on the Vespers had perhaps unfortunately colored his impression/understanding of the piece regarding Rachmaninov's purposes in composing it. I know that some of Rachmaninov's biographers had given information stating his supposed lack of religious activity/beliefs and also his dates of leaving Russia, or reasons for composing specific works, that now clash with current research and information. This matters to me only because I have spent much of my life researching Rachmaninov in preparation for performing some of his known and lesser-known works, such as singing the alto solo in the Vespers many times, or giving the first live public performance of his 1st Piano Sonata in d minor, in many halls around the world, and while presenting television programs about many different composers on international networks. During my research I was intrigued to learn that many of the older "assumptions" about Rachmaninov's religious beliefs/feelings were indeed erroneous. His deeply held spiritual beliefs actually had strong impact on his methods and his reasons for composing many of his works, including the Vespers.

In general it was very interesting to listen to audience members around me during the intermission or while exiting Davies Hall at the conclusion of the concert. The large hall was filled and I suspect, judging from the overheard comments, that many of the listeners were choral singers and/or conductors in other Bay Area vocal ensembles or churches. Which brings up a second topic that I would love to hear other's comments on - according to the Program Notes explaining the profusion of Swedish composers that write choral music, "an estimated 600,000 Swedes- nearly 7% of the county's total population of 9 Million - sing in choirs ranging from amateur to world class"......
Seven percent of the country's population! Does anyone know the statistics of other countries - or even individual cities - that can rival this number of choirs or choral singers? I know I read a few years back that the San Francisco Bay Area has over 500 registered choral groups, not counting the choirs in houses of worship. What can we learn from this and how can we apply it in ways that help music to be a conscious form of unity and peace-building in our cultures, societies and communities?

No comments:

Post a Comment