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Review: Present Music's Truly American Thanksgiving

Pop in to the first day of any music theory course, and you’ll learn that the three elements of all music are melody, harmony, and rhythm. If you’re precocious, raise your hand and request to add timbre to the list (“Row Your Boat,” after all, doesn’t sound quite the same on a kazoo as on a Stradivarius).

But ask Present Music’s Kevin Stalheim, and he won’t hesitate to add “space” to the roster. After hearing PM’s annual Thanksgiving Concert, performed Sunday, as usual, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, I dare you not to agree.

Take, for example, Jehan Alain’s Litanies for organ (1937), one of the staples of the 20th-century canon, spiritedly played by Karen Beaumont. There are thundering harmonies and off-kilter rhythms—but if these didn’t get your attention, Beaumont sent some of the passages to the organ’s “back pipes” behind the audience–sort of a dueling fingerboards, French style.

Or Caroline Shaw’s 2013 choral piece, From Rivers, which began with the women of the Arrowhead High School Choir assembled on traditional risers, but continued as they walked down the center aisle of the cathedral, encircled the central baptismal font, singing a simple refrain–“we come together/around you”—as soprano Grace Bielski sang countermelody with striking glissandos. The solo voice of Chelsie Propst, a member of the PM vocal ensemble Hearing Voices, was the highlight of Robert Honstein’s O Lucidissima Apostolorum Turba, a reimagined setting of a 12th-century chant by Hildegard Von Bingen. The Collegium Ladyes joined the other two choruses in Yehudi Wyner setting of Shir Ha-Shirim from the Song of Songs, based on a Georgian Jewish melody. And The Bucks Native American singing and drumming group opened and closed the concert with resounding traditional songs, which echoed in the cathedral vault, as if using sonar to map its contours.

The cathedral space had a definite impact on the “headliner” of the evening, a PM commission by composer Christopher Cerrone based on the poetry of James Wright. Wright was one of the great American poets of loneliness and alienation, and Cerrone’s selection of seven poems—all of which are from Wright’s masterful collection, The Branch Will Not Break—all emphasize moments in which a lonely observer of nature experiences an existential epiphany of sorts. To evoke the isolation of the speaker, Cerrone uses a limited tonal range, but renders it with textures that seem ready to explode with possibility. And it does just that, in the final lines of the piece, the music builds and expands into colors and harmonies that have been withheld until now. While one missed some of the musical detail because of the echo-y acoustics, the cathedral gave the music a ghostly quality that was perfectly suited to poetry. And the final few minutes is an inspiring crescendo that resonated beautifully in the vast space.

But the most exhilarating use of the space came with the performance of John Cage’s Apartment House 1776, which surprisingly has only been performed only once before by PM. Surprising because it is a profound and celebratory tribute to the American idea. Written originally for the American Bicentennial, it features four soloists representing different religious traditions, and a host of other vocal and instrumental ensembles, each playing different tunes dating from the time of the American Revolution. The musicians are scattered around the space, and some move as they perform. In the resonant space of the cathedral, it played beautifully, as if we were being haunted by myriad spirits of the patriotic past. With several dozen musicians taking part, it’s no small undertaking. But it’s so appropriate to the spirit of PM’s Thanksgiving concert, it merits frequent return engagements.

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