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Review: Present Music's Thanksgiving concert reflective

If the program features Native American singing and drumming, 12th-century chant, African-American spirituals, the world premiere of a commissioned piece and the wonderful bombast of 20th-century French organ music, it must be the annual Present Music Thanksgiving concert.

Playing to nearly full Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the Present Music Ensemble and artistic director Kevin Stalheim were joined by a host of professional and student musicians in a program that was, at first glance, wildly eclectic.

As the program unfolded, it became apparent that the connecting thread running through the evening's offerings was a meditative spirit that was perfectly appropriate to the interior of the cathedral and the upcoming holiday.

The world premiere of Christopher Cerrone's "The Branch Will Not Break," inspired by poetry of James Wright, introduced a piece written for chorus and instrumentalists and constructed of seven movements, each built of repeated, short themes.

Performed with conviction and polish by Present Music's Hearing Voices vocal ensemble and the Present Music Ensemble, parts of the piece were stirring and quite poignant. Some of the sections didn't fare as well, with singers frequently overpowering the instrumentalists and the repetitions wearing somewhat thin in spots.

Pure, lovely singing was in the spotlight in Yehudi Wyner's arrangement of "Shir Ha-Shirim" and Hildegard von Bingen's "O Lucidissima Apostolorum Turba," arranged by Robert Honstein with solos sung by HV's Chelsie Propst.

Caroline Shaw's "Two Rivers" found a virtual river of singers flowing through the cathedral, using the space's live acoustic to create a lovely surround-sound effect as they moved.

Taking visual cues from cellphones, groups of singers, bands of instrumentalists, The Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group and various soloists, including singer (and MSO bassist) Laura Snyder, moved about the space in a seemingly random, but actually beautifully coordinated, performance of John Cage's "Apartment House 1776."

Organist Karen Beaumont played a powerful, vivid rendition of Jehan Alain's "Litanies" (1937) to close the program's first half.

The program also featured the Collegium Ladyes, the Arrowhead High School Choir, with director and soloist Grace Bielski, and instrumentalists from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Shorewood High School.

The evening wrapped up with a hymn sung by the audience and performers, followed by the Friendship Dance, accompanied by The Bucks, a long-standing tradition at Present Music Thanksgiving concerts, and a final closing song by The Bucks.

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