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April 15, 2005

Passionate theme a success

San Antonio Express (TX):

Conspirare, the superb professional chorus based in Austin, visited Trinity University's Parker Chapel on Saturday with a well-matched set of three contemporary works on the general theme of loss. The program's centerpiece was the world premiere of Austin composer Donald Grantham's setting of Pablo Neruda's poem of failed love, "La canción desesperada," in W.S. Merwin's English translation. The closer was Chicago composer Frank Ferko's setting of the "Stabat Mater," interwoven with several ancient and modern texts.

Both composers work in a highly flexible tonal idiom, given to dense, richly colored chordings and mobile harmonies. Both draw from historical styles. Beyond these similarities, the works differ markedly in musical character. Grantham's melodic lines are more angular, relating more closely to the emotional turmoil underlying the text than to the language itself. He was asked to write solo parts for the specific strengths of bass Glenn Miller, whose oceanic low register shook the chapel walls; soprano Jennie Olson, whose silver high register reached the stratosphere; and Stephen Redfield, an agile and expressive musician. Grantham complied nicely. The solo lines well conveyed the contradictory passion and coolness, sensuality and toughness, in the text. The choral writing was less distinctive, sometimes falling into a modal idiom that sounded a little too much like Ralph Vaughan Williams.

For the "Stabat Mater," a medieval hymn recalling the emotions of Mary upon witnessing the crucifixion of her son, Ferko made each three-line stanza into a distinct movement. He used medieval chant as a touchstone, but seamlessly expanded into the modern harmonic and rhythmic world to give each stanza its own highly individual, textually appropriate character, though nearly always with a fluidity that fit the swing of the text.

At the work's apex, the chorus piled dissonance on dissonance to build a long, excruciating, constantly shifting tone cluster on the words "Crucifixo condolere" — "sharing the pain of the crucified." Soprano Nancy Curtis was the powerful soloist in the interpolated texts, which ranged from the lament of Andromache in Euripides' "The Trojan Women" to sharp-witted excerpts from Charlotte Mayerson's "Death Cycle Machine" of 1995. In these sections Ferko ditched the plainchant allusions in favor of a consistently modern and textually astute tonal idiom.

Artistic director Craig Hella Johnson had his troupe open with his own deeply affecting arrangement of the African American spiritual "Motherless Child." Mezzo-soprano soloist Stephanie Prewitt projected her organlike low register and stirring top from the front of the chapel while the chorus lined the two side aisles. Even in that perilous formation, the chapel's lavish resonance held no terrors for this extraordinary troupe, probably the nation's best chorus. Its crisp diction, taut teamwork and accurate intonation kept everything cleanly in focus.

Posted by acapnews at April 15, 2005 12:27 AM