To Heaven by Way of Earth

Review By Anna Carol Dudley
San Francisco Classical Voice
June 2, 2009

The Sanford Dole Ensemble performed a program called "Heaven and Earth" Saturday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They were a month late for the celebration of Earth Day, but exactly on time for the anniversary of the premiere (on May 30, 1992) of Libby Larsen's Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth. An additional touch of serendipity for me was that I attended that debut. It was good to hear the work again.

The Missa Gaia follows the form, but not the literal text, of the Roman Catholic Mass. In Larsen's words, "The form and spirit of the traditional Mass combines with words that speak of human beings' relationship to the Earth." Her texts are drawn from the Bible and from several Native American and other poets.

The Introit, for example, is a setting of a poem by Wendell Berry, "Within the circles of our lives." Circles of years, seasons, and the moon are related to circles of human contact and emotion, wonderfully evoked by melodic and harmonic use of the musical circle of fifths (for you non-music-students, Google "circle of fifths"). The circle theme reappears elsewhere in the work, especially in the closing Benediction, where a Native American poem is based on "circles of motion."

The Kyrie is only tangentially related to the traditional Mass text. But the Gloria is indeed a Gloria, a fine setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins' magnificent poem, "Glory Be to God." The poem is itself intensely musical, in form and in word-sounds, and Larsen, making skillful use of tone color and repetitions, has made a musical jewel out of it.

A Creed of Many Colors

The Credo starts with phrases from the 14th-century theologian Meister Eckhart, spoken in turn by chorus members, over instrumental accompaniment by string quartet, oboe, percussion, and piano four hands. The recitations, passed from person to person, were uniformly punchy, creating an imperative effect: This is the Credo and you will believe it — the sort of effect that drives many Christians into non-creedal churches. But this is altogether a lovely creed, taken from many voices rooted in human relationship with the earth. The combination of speaking, chanting, and singing in parts was beautifully done by the chorus and ably assisted by the instruments. A couple of memorable moments: sweetly tonal harmonic progressions for "Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee" (Job 12:8), and a nice vocal glissando at the end.

In the position of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, the text was Psalm 84, from the Chinook Psalter translation. (Brahms also used this text in his German Requiem: "How lovely is thy dwelling-place.") The setting is a solo, beautifully sung by Helen Zindarsian, accented with some unison echoing from the seated chorus.

The Larsen was the centerpiece, but the entire concert consisted of works by living composers. Among them was a movement from Sanford Dole's own cantata The Fabric of Peace, commissioned by the Oakland Symphony Chorus and premiered in January of this year. The movement "Glory to God for All Things" (accompanied by Richard Riccardi at the piano) takes its text, sung in English, from the Akethist of Thanksgiving by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkistan.

A Universal Thanksgiving

Like Libby Larsen's Mass, Dole's piece delights in a great variety of earthly attributes: mountains, water, birds, beasts, flowers, berries, moon, stars, seasons, tastes, scents — and "the works of great composers," evoked in the piano part by bits of Bach, Beethoven, and others. Unison chants, passed from section to section, contrast with full choral settings. I especially liked the closing section, with its repetition of "Glory to you for" a delectable list of earthly pleasures. Dole had selected an inherently musical text, and set it well.

The concert began with two works grounded in the program's "Heaven" theme. Till Ängeln med de brinnande händerna (To the angel with the fiery hands), by Karen Rehnqvist, was sung in Swedish. It is a densely written, atonal piece, the singing lines often only a tone or half tone apart, therefore very difficult to keep in tune, even for this group of some of the Bay Area's best professional singers. If the composer hoped that the addition of a solo oboe obbligato would help the intonation, she miscalculated. The unhappy effect was to plant suspicion in the ear of the hearer that the singers' pitch had occasionally fallen and needed to be jacked up. The oboe part, well played by James Moore (presumably with all his fingers on the right keys), was a pleasure to hear.

Tarik O'Regan's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis: Variations for Choir, written for chorus and solo quartet, alternated unison chant and choral part-singing. Sustained choralelike passages were often given to the solo quartet, while the chorus parts were active and elaborate — something like the setup in a Bach chorale cantata, where often a soloist sings a chorale and the instruments elaborate on it. Bach did it better. In this piece, the quartet — excellent singers all — were insufficiently differentiated from the chorus. Again, there was a solo instrumental obbligato. Here it was for cello, and probably prevented more lapses in choral intonation than it exposed; still, there were a few problems. The able cellist was Rachel Turner Houk.

This was an ambitious program, and there are very few choruses that could have brought it off as well as did the Sanford Dole Ensemble. I am happy to report that the audience showed enthusiastic support for the performance.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, member of the faculty of UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.