Musica Vocale Presents Music and a Challenge
Paul Pattison of KC Arts Beat
May 20, 2019
The sanctuary of Sacred Heart-Guadalupe Catholic Church provided an apt venue for the season-ending concert of Musica Vocale. It was originally the parish home for Irish immigrants. Indeed the present building was constructed by those immigrants. But the demographics slowly changed and now it is the home for many Hispanic families. The concert presented on the evening of May 19th reflected that change. Titled "Resist: Challenging State and Circumstance," it was both provocative and poignant, using poetry, Biblical verse and a spiritual to deliver a message at once sorrowful and hopeful.
Fully half the concert was devoted to a new cantata by Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) based on the prose and poetry of immigrant Americans, Marlene Rangel, Javier Zamora, Janine Joseph and Julia Montejo, all undocumented and brought to the United States as children. All are Dreamers. All are stateless. Whatever our political views on the subject, this is an issue that screams for a resolution. This concert was a plea for understanding.
The evening started with a powerful new work by Geoffrey Wilcken. "Everyone's Brother" is drawn from the words of author Luis Alberto Urrea (b. 1953), himself a Mexican-American. Opening with a beautiful melismatic line, it soon devolves into broken passages depicting Mexicans peering through border fences, then dramatic key changes on the line "I am no different than you." This was a very effective appeal for unity; for brotherhood.
We then moved to the polyphony of Renaissance composer William Byrd, who tried to maintain his Catholic identity in Reformation England. In "Bow Thine Ear, O Lord," the prophet Isaiah's words capture the desperation of the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. To me, the use of polyphony (many sounds) seemed to make the case that many moving musical lines can make one whole and complete work. Perhaps in the same way many people can make one nation. This was beautifully sung, the words "desolate and void" employing a descriptive downward scale.
"War-Dreams" by Canadian-American composer Zachary Wadsworth drew on the poetry of Walt Whitman who was greatly affected by the carnage of the Civil War and the young lives destroyed. Constant key changes and cluster chords aptly portrayed the anguish of viewing a battlefield after conflict. Wadsworth also ingeniously intersperses portions of the Byrd motet we had just heard. The difficult and complex work was convincingly and magnificently sung.
"O vos Omnes" by Pablo Casals demonstrated the composing genius of the legendary cellist. Casals was hounded and persecuted by the Fascist regime of Franco's Spain. The motet uses Lamentations as its source: "O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow." Casal's captures "dolor," sorrow, with a profundity that must have come from his own experiences which the choir conveyed that with authority.
"Psalms of Ascent" by Chester Alwes took the concert in a brighter direction. Mr. Alwes used a 1640 Puritan translation of three psalms taken from the first book published in the Americas, "The Whole Booke of Psalmes." Dramatically sung by the men only, the first Psalm (120) was a plea for peace and justice that varied in style from the dissonant to harmonic.
The two Psalms to follow were more hopeful and joyous. Psalm 121, "I to the hills lift up mine eyes", involved tonal leaps and acrobatics with a dissonance that worked magic on this listener. Ending on a joyful note, "O all yee servants of the Lord," Psalm 134, brought "Psalms of Consent" to a beautifully sung conclusion.
Mr. Wilcken carefully chose the words of Nelson Mandela in composing the second work of the evening, "That Promised Land." The work employed a rhythmic repetition of a hand drum to emphasize the words "We must use time wisely." This accentuated the notion that time marches on.
Wilcken's arrangement of the spiritual "Deep River" brought the first half to an end. I have been hearing more spirituals at choral concerts lately and it is deeply satisfying to hear this passionate and profound music finding its rightful place. The arrangement was innovative and effective, capturing a people yearning for a home.
The second half featured a cantata by Dunphy. In a pre-concert talk she stated that "American DREAMers" was written in response to President Trump's inflammatory language about immigrants. "We can all trace our lives back to a similar story," she said. Treading long distances, facing raging seas all sought a better life. The poets represented here are tired of being pigeon-holed as "others." Theirs are stories of challenges and successes; heart-ache and joy. Stories every American can relate to as we all came from somewhere else ultimately.
The cantata is almost story-like in its composition. The poems of Marlene Rangel provide a narrative and are each sung by a soloist with harmony provided by a wordless chorus. We progress from little girl to adulthood starting with the bright, clear, soprano of Nancy Sparling, then the sweet, pure tenor of Jason Elam, the assertive baritone of Matthew Jackson and the assured alto of Jesse Sullinger.
Intertwined in the narrative are poems of individual experiences sung by the full choir. Javier Zamora provides the text for "Dancing in Buses." This is a joyous and rhythmic imitation of dancing with a boom-box on a shoulder. Suddenly a bass drum imitates gunfire causing panic in the choir. "Hands behind your heads! Drop down! Don't scream!"
The cantata then takes a humorous with "More milk, more milk makes it better" by Filipino undocumented immigrant Janine Joseph, which relates a young girl's first encounter with bottled milk and other fatty foods. Using a style reminiscent of barber shop quartet, we hear how this little girl goes from magazine cover girl to cannonball dive champion, the music becoming dissonant, even cruel.
"#Undocujoy," the cantata's next movement, is a richly harmonized setting of the words of Julia Montejo. "I believe in us. you are resisting a system that thinks we're not worthy of even smiling. Together, we will overcome," sung almost prayerfully. The cantata ends with "#UnitedWeDream." Composed in a style much like a spiritual or hymn, it employs both English and Spanish in its text. "RESIST! RESIST!" is first sung tentatively, then with more force ending with "This is where you belong, Dreamer!"
It is commendable that a program of such varied music and text could be constructed in such a fluid way. Topics of fear, danger, discovery, disappointment, hope, resistance, dignity and belief in oneself created a unity of narrative. Jay Carter's comprehensive and well-written program notes deepened the experience. The choir conducted by Arnold Epley was in full glory, harmonizing beautifully and handling difficult dissonances with ease. We should all appreciate Epley's bold and imaginative programming which has been inspiring singers and audiences for decades.