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Volti review: 'Sound From the Bench' a compelling case

Joshua Kosman of San Francisco Chronicle

There was a time when composers would look to poets for texts to set to music, but it turns out that the language of government bureaucracy can also do the trick. That was one of the lessons to emerge from Sunday afternoon's superb concert by Volti, Robert Geary's innovative new-music chorus that concluded its 35th season with a program at the Marsh Arts Center in Berkeley.

Actually, the distinction may be less clear cut than I've made it sound. Among the many virtues of "Sound From the Bench," a fantastically inventive cantata by composer Ted Hearne that had its world premiere, is the way the piece - and its text, drawn from the work of poet Jena Osman - transforms legal language into a sort of runic ritual.

At the center of this 40-minute work is a musical collage based on snippets from the oral arguments in Citizens United, the case that the U.S. Supreme Court used to gut restrictions on campaign donations. A central concept there was the question of corporate personhood, and Hearne neatly embodies that issue in his performing forces.

The piece is scored for two electric guitars and drums alongside the chorus, and the relations between the two groups - the mechanized, scarily protean sounds of the instruments on one side and the distinctively human singing on the other - turns into a deft and fertile metaphor.

It helps that Hearne - who was recently named as the next composer in the San Francisco Symphony's "New Voices" program - writes with such technical assurance and imaginative scope. The cantata ranges widely in approach, from sculptural pastiches to vast dramatic anthems to utterances of limpid tenderness (one late movement is a gentle, lovely pop song whose rhythms slowly drift out of phase).

And the interplay between the excellent instrumentalists (guitarists Taylor Levine and James Moore and drummer Ron Wiltrout) and the chorus proves endlessly provocative. The first movement, based on a text about ventriloquism, finds the guitars doing a kind of Frankenstein-ish attempt to pass their sounds off as human breath, with funny and chilling results.

The rest of the program, though less ambitious, was almost as rewarding. It included the world premiere of Melissa Dunphy's elegant setting of the oath of allegiance that new U.S. citizens (including her) must take, and its sharp-edged shifts - from sustained choral harmonies to martial outbursts and back again - cast new light on a potentially drab piece of writing.

The program opened with two works by Bay Area composer Kirke Mechem, "We Can Sing That!" and a trio of lovely bird-themed songs, "Winging Wildly."

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