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Other-Worldly Words and Music

New York
Dendur Temple, Metropolitan Museum of Art
04/06/2011 -  
“Out of This World”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Assumpta est Maria in caelum
Plainchant/Francisco Guerrero/Andrea Gabrielli: Ave regina caelorum
Claudio Monteverdi: Ecco mormorar l’onde
William Hawley: Fuggi, fuggi dolor
Mason Bates: Stelle, vostra mercé l’eccelse sfere – Observer in the Magellanic Cloud
Benjamin Britten: Hymn to Saint Cecilia
Robert Schumann: An die Sterne
Gustav Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Kirke Mechem: Island in Space
Sarah Hopkins: Past Life Melodies
Harold Arlen: Out of This World
Kurt Weill: Lost in the Stars
Erika Lloyd: Cells Planets
Tommy Sims, Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick: Change the World

Chanticleer: Casey Breves, Michael McNeil, Gregory Peebles (Sopranos), Cortez Mitchell, Alan Reinhardt, Adam Ward (Altos), Mathew Curtis, Brian Hinman, Ben Jones (Tenors), Eric Alatorre, Michael Axtell, Jace Wittig (Baritones and Basses) Mathew Oltman (Music Director)

Chanticleer (© Matthew Washburn)

The cynosure of last night’s concert was neither the stunning Chanticleer men’s chorus, nor the fascinating music of four centuries. Rather, it was the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, where the concert was held.

Granted, Dendur is not one of Egypt’s great temples. (It was more Nubian, and was actually built under Roman occupation.) But when it was about to be submerged by the Aswan Dam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was given all the stone blocks of the Temple–weighing some 800 tons!!! They reconstructed the gates, put in all the stones, added some picturesque shards and fragments, as well as a few anachronistic statues (Thutmose III and the Lion Goddess), a huge slanting window, and a reflective pool.

That pool was the most startling thing, for the reflections of the pool on the walls as the sun went down last night created subtle moving shadows, an almost magical illusion behind the Chanticleer singers.

True, the illusion was broken by the sight of a few hundred well-dressed New Yorkers sitting and listening to the formally dressed singers. But their choice of music, at least the early part, was absolutely fitting for the Dendur Temple.

Specifically, their first music for an “Out of This World” theme was originally for church and monastery. So while the words were never clear, the resonance of Palestrina and Andrea Gabrielli (whose antiphonal chant reflected the brass choirs of his nephew Giovanni), were fittingly medieval. The group could have been singing in Chartres or Notre Dame, but Dendur fit them perfectly.

They were particularly original in two works. A monodic Plainchant (probably 13th Century) was linked without a pause to the sane prayer (this in five parts) by the stunning Spanish 16th Century composer Francisco Guerrero.

Chanticleer, though, is a most original choir, probably as close as possible to Renaissance choirs themselves. The size is right (three voices for each section), half of them possess the “boy” voices (not contra tenor, certainly not castrati) of those times, and they can sing the most complex music with a purity and (despite the resonance of their locale last night) transparency. While they had performed here before, this was my first hearing, and they presented their theme with both delight and reverence.

Happily, the “official” program notes had a typographical error calling this concert “Out Of This Word!” (italics mine), appropriate enough for one of Benjamin Britten’s long choral works, Hymn to Saint Cecilia. The words were by W.H. Auden, and the two worked on it during their “American” period. It is a joyful work, and I was truly happy that the words were printed.

The other two “classical” works were by Schumann and (a choral arrangement of) Mahler, both on words of Friedrich Rückert. The Mahler especially had a wonderful arrangement taken from the original voice and orchestra.

The second half was not quite secular. The music by Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill was arranged for very complex choral ensemble, and the New York premiere of Mason Bates’ Observer in the Magellanic Cloud was fascinating. The words here were in Maori, and Chanticleer left their somewhat austere positions to march along in ritualized Maori fashion. (Thankfully, Mr. Bates never tried to imitate Maori breath-singing. )

The most sheerly beautiful song was wordless, by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins. One theme was original, the other based on Aborigine music, which grew in intensity, weaving and bobbing along. (One of the basses did a diggeredoo imitation, but this didn’t take away from the originality of the music.)

Showing the unerring taste of Chanticleer, Kirke Mechem, a most eclectic composer, chose two groups of words One by Archibald MacLeish was a paean to Earth, for “brothers who known now they are truly brothers.”

But the first section was prose by the American astronaut Russell Schweickart, an answer to the first line, “Give us peace.”

“You realize,” said Mr. Schweickart while he was taking a space walk, “that on (earth, all history, all poetry, all music, all art, death, birth, love, tears, all games, and joy–all on that same spot. And there’s not a sound–only a silence the depth of which you’ve never known.”

That silence was felt some 2,000 years ago in Dendur in the hottest spot on earth. Within the cool confines of the Met Museum, the silence and sounds together made for an other-worldly evening.

Harry Rolnick



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