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Games of Chants

New York
Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch, West 87th Street
09/24/2011 -  
Ancient Tunes in Modern Times:
Frank La Rocca: Magnificat
Maurice Duruflé: Tota pulchra es
Katherine Dienes: Ave Verum
Ola Gjeito: Prelude
John Szymko: Illumina te tenebre
Andrew Smith: Ave Maria
Christine Donkin: Magnificat
Paul Ayre: Veni Creator Spiritus
Jaakko Mantyjaarvi: Gaudete
John Tavener: The Lord’s Prayer
Eliott Levine: Cum Essem parvulus
Ivan Moody: O quam mirabilis
Tarik O’Regan: Columba Aspexit

Amuse: Paavana Kumar, Janet Davidson, Amy Ng, Andrea Cortes-Comerer (Sopranos), Wendy Gilles (Alto), Roy Byrd, Eric Hansen, Ryan Mesima, Bob Rainier (Baritones), Robert Isaacs (Conductor)

Amuse (© Amuse)

During one work last night, the choral group Amuse vocally reconstructed the acoustics in this century-old Anglo-Catholic Upper West Side church. Until Christine Donkin’s Magnificat, the sounds of the church were a bit resonant, but fairly dry. That changed when the luscious voice of Wendy Gilles started the Gregorian chant for the Magnificat, and then our own aural systems became askew.

What happened was that the other female singers in Amuse started to echo Ms. Gilles, not exactly with imitation, but a few words, phrases, some almost whispered, some a bit louder, other voices ascending and disappearing. And within a minute, one was mesmerized into imagining that the apse of the church had widened, the ceiling had risen, and voices were ascending and reverberating from all sides of the building.

This sounds like Ms. Donkin was doing a bit of trickery, an aural illusion. But the hushed sounds floating around the pulpit, with ancient icons and symbols around the voices were less an illusion than an emotional outpouring.

That was stunning. But no moment of the badly misnamed Amuse (perhaps somebody’s idea of a classical pun) was without its charm. Not that a female choir is charming by itself. But the theme of the concert–transubstantiating the Gregorian chants of eight centuries ago into music of today–offered a wealth of riches and voices.

Few of the composers are well known to the general public, John Tavener and the French organist Maurice Duruflé were familiar enough, but the other composers were new to everybody including the conductor.

The founder of Amuse, Lee Ryder, had discovered these rarities from her four-thousand musical volumes. All apparently had been written for women’s choir except the lovely Veni Creator Spiritus by Paul Ayres. (Gustav Mahler had his own version of “Come, Holy Ghost”, but obviously with different results.) Four baritones joined the women, singing together, while the women added a series of descants. Conductor Robert Isaacs explained that the end of the music was like a Schoenbergian technique–one line sung straightforwardly, with a simultaneous retrograde, upside-down and “free” improvisation.
Those were Mr. Isaacs’ words. In the music, I could spot none of this. Like most the music, based upon Medieval liturgy, it was an interesting stew of dissonance and melismatic consonance.

One composer was in the audience…er, congregation. Elliott Levine had written the most purely “likeable” work, Cum essen parvelus. The Latin words were most familiar: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child. …But now that I am a man, I leave childish things aside…”

At first, the motet sounded like a Baroque fugue, one singer coming in after another. With words like that, this would have been sophistic. But the reality was different. The women were singing, like children sing, a round! Other forms were used throughout the piece, but the swaying rhythms gave the feeling of children, perhaps children of a Medieval mystery play.

While credit must go to these beautiful singers in this eight-year-old choir–whether in ensemble or sextet or as soloists–conductor Robert Isaacs provided the joyful feel of the music through his brief but telling introductions, his successful conducting and through a personality intuitively tying the music together.

The Harvard grad–who is also a unicyclist, juggler, singer and well-known choral conductors in New York–insists that he has no relation to the great 15th Century composer-conductor Heindrich Isaac, but I for one don’t believe that for a moment. The original Isaac presented music which not only impressed the most knowledgeable Florentine aristocracy but intrigued Anton Webern, who created his own quantum world of music in the last century.

Robert Isaacs (the Younger, as a chivalric indexer might say) created in this concert a variety of tones, techniques and musics which revealed and reveled in its hybrid, high-bred origins.

The Amuse ensemble

Harry Rolnick



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