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April 30, 2013

'Battle Hymns' review: war transcended

San Francisco Chronicle:

The performers in composer David Lang's choral-dance work "Battle Hymns" don't make an entrance in the usual sense. They muster, and they fall in.

At several points during Saturday afternoon's performance at the Kezar Pavilion - one of four given over the weekend by Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society in collaboration with the Leah Stein Dance Company and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir - doors opened all along the sides of the space, and masses of singers in military garb streamed in. As if in answer to a bugle call, they gathered in the large central area, then arrayed themselves in precise lines and began to sing.

In the big opening movement, Lang takes the letter written by Union Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife - a letter made famous by Ken Burns' PBS documentary - and cuts it into phrases. Then he sets them in alphabetical order, producing a sort of free-floating evocation of the fog of war.

The music, beautifully sung by the chorus, treads a similar line between specificity and vagueness. At first, Lang deploys only a single four-note motif (a cousin to the central material in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Little Match Girl Passion"), repeated in stark and unvaried iterations. But then the harmonies begin to spread, filling in the vocal spaces and also blurring in the reverberant acoustics of the Pavilion.

"Battle Hymns" has its share of magical moments, including a gorgeous and all-too-brief passage in which members of the children's chorus hum with their hands over their mouths to produce a Ligetiesque swirl of sound. And there are others in which Lang seems to be stretching meager material past the point of overuse.

Still, "Battle Hymns" concludes on a transcendent note, with a surrealist and practically wordless setting based on Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer." Suddenly, all the regimentation of the staging is jettisoned, as the performers mill about the space singing suspended harmonies at the edge of audibility. The effect is intoxicating and powerful. Read more.

Posted by acapnews at April 30, 2013 12:00 AM