The Present Music Sunday afternoon Thanksgiving concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was thoughtful, engaging, and even inspiring, emphasizing choral music and featuring various performers from the community, as has been the custom for this event.
The premiere of a stirring new piece commissioned by Present Music was the highlight. Brooklyn based composer Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984) chose lyrical poetry full of imagery by James Wright to set for the seven movements of The Brand Will Not Break, for voices, piano, string quartet and percussion. Cerrone’s writing for voices is remarkable, a talent few composers possess. He works simple material as it is repeated, layering it, changing its harmony, texture and context. Each movement was an evolving sonic journey.
The moody contemplation at times rose to grand climaxes. The last movement is the gentle optimism of a nature scene on a Minnesota prairie. I can’t remember the last time I felt so wiped out by music, almost moved to sobs as the Hearing Voices ensemble of eight singers built to a relentless crescendo. The audience responded with an unusually long ovation.
Organist Karen Beaumont raised the rafters with the ecstatic energy of Jehan Alain’s Litanies. Caroline Shaw’s From Rivers was catchy, friendly and very attractive, sung by the fresh voices of the Arrowhead High School Choir and their teacher Grace Bielski as soloist.
Composer Robert Honstein (b. 1980) created the luscious, modal O Lucidissima Apostolorum turba, for voices, cello and organ, based on a 12th century chant by Hildegard von Bingen. The beautiful singing of the Hearing Voices ensemble and Collegium Ladyes was joined by the free and expressive sound of soprano soloist Chelsie Propst.
John Cage’s Apartment House 1776 was marvelously fun cacophony, with the stately contralto of Laura Snyder, various choruses, instrumental soloists and ensembles each doing its own music, like listening to 20 radio stations at once. The Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group, a PM tradition, began and ended the program in rousing fashion. Artistic director Kevin Stalheim deserves enormous credit for conducting the program, and even more for putting this terrific concert together.