Enchanting performance of contemporary works

Music review by Adam Broner
Piedmont Post, June 3, 2009

After a hiatus, the Sanford Dole Ensemble is back on the music scene with a splash. Their winter program, “Messiah,” drew a lot of attention, and their spring offering last Saturday, May 30, provided a showcase for “Heaven and Earth” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Pat ancient prayer, part modern poetry, this program of four contemporary choral works drew on texts that celebrate Nature as Divinity in a program originally slated for Earth Day.

The 18 singers were joined by oboe for Karin Renqvist’s Till Ängeln med de brinnande händerna (To the Angel with the Fiery Hands), with Norwegian text by Bjorn von Rosen. Lament, curse and prayer became one they sang of ice and fire. Oboist James Moore played simple major phrases that intercut the difficult vocal parts, and may have helped cue them for the sharp buzz of close dissonance. The sopranos shifted to chant in an ethereal monotone that echoed, turning the small hall into medieval cavern. Then altos crossed with the heavier vibrato of grief, slow-paced to odd intervals. The oboe wove in and out, brightly disconnected, perhaps the Angel of Death they prayed for. The singers finally gathered with soft chords that dissipated to hums.

Tarik O’Regan wrote Magnifiact & Nunc Dimittis: Variations for Choir in 2001 for chorus and cello, with text from the Latin mass. The singers alternated as soloists and as backdrop, fronted by a vocal quartet which offered lovely and unexpected chords. Four soloists took turns in “chant,” and Kevin Gibbs was resplendent in his baritone solo.

Cellist Rachel Turner Houk played with the melodies, repeating fragments or distressing them, and scrubbing roughly woven chords on a cello washboard. In “Nunc” she became more lyrical, then dove down to the lowest note and filled the tall narrow hall with deep reverberations.

Conductor Sanford Dole, also a composer, next led the chorus in his composition, Glory to God for All Things. Richard Riccardi accompanied on piano with an improvisatory quality that fit the wandering chromaticism and jazzy ninths. The chorus supplied rhythmic force, then switched to suddenly focused harmonies on “Alleluia.” Dole’s writing is sly, with piano references to Great Works, and cool, watery harmonies that invoked Manhattan Transfer, while his vocal line slid between church modes and jazz.

After intermission came the blockbuster – Libby Larsen’s 1992 Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth. She set Biblical texts and the prayers of mystic Meister Eckhart against the sumptuous poetry of Wendell Berry, Gerard Manly Hopkins and native American poet Maurice Kenney:

my chant is the herb that heals
and the moon that moves the tide
and the wind that cleans the earth
of old bones singing in the morning dust

–Maurice Kenney

Larsen called for chorus, string quartet, oboe, four-hands piano and percussion to balance the sacred writing. In the Introit the strings gave a minimalist undertow. A violin climbed a curious scale and vocals followed, building a strange and satisfying chord. Later, tubular bells led the singers.

The Kyrie was slow and melancholy, the Credo abrupt, with spoken voice and dense harmonies, and the Agnus Dei was simply lovely, with soprano Helene Zindarsian singing a Chinook psalter. The piano accompanied with low and rhythmic chords, and tubular bells echoed.

The music intensified in the Benediction, then slimmed to a single melodic line. They end, slowly climbing a circle of fifths. This work is deep and definitive, and the Ensemble did it proud.