William Ford | 30 SEP 2019
Artists, including musicians, have attempted to represent or otherwise portray cultures different from their own. Verdi, an Italian, gave us his take on Egypt in his opera Aida. Similarly two Slavic composers gave their impressions of Italy (Tchaikovsky in his Capriccio Italien) and Spain (Rimsky Korsakov in his Capriccio Espagnole). Some even gave us their impression of ancient times (Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe). We know that the Italian street band is not a 100-piece symphony orchestra, but we give license to the composer to share with us their thoughts, feelings, ideas of other cultures as represented in their music.
Coro Vocati, the 24-voice choral group based in Atlanta, presented a concert titled Can you hear me? that was built around various composers’ impressions, reflections, etc., of the music from different cultures. From American composer, Abbie Betinis’ take on Middle Eastern songs (From Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hafez) to Tasi Yu-Shan’s Westernized arrangement of a traditional Taiwanese song, Coro Vocati sang in 11 different languages to share the feelings of people who are often not heard because of their social, economic or national status. Whether it is legitimate to attempt to represent someone else’s culture through the medium of Western choral traditions is a debate best left to others, but Coro Vocati probably came as close to performing the program as perfectly as one is likely to find.
Twelve pieces comprised the programs, and several were outstanding, all conducted by the group’s music director, John Dickson. Ēriks Ešenvalds’ gorgeous Only in Sleep was sung flawlessly by Megan Rikard, whose crystalline soprano hovered over the audience as she sang from the elevated pulpit of Atlanta’s Morningside Presbyterian Church. The text by Sara Teasdale is an elder’s recounting of their dreams, where playmates with still-smooth skin and intense brown hair played together, bonding in deep friendship; yet the storyteller wonders if they are still fondly remembered by those friends, even if just in sleep. The arrangement is as simple as the text, and both pack a nostalgic wallop.
The central work on the program was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op 27, Mvt. 1, popularly known as the “Moonlight Sonata” performed by pianist Jonathan Crutchfield. This music is the composer’s most lushly romantic, yet spare and elegant, work. Sometimes, it is good to be reminded that humans, in fact, are capable of creating such transcendent beauty. This was followed by A Silence Haunts Me by American composer Jake Runestad, who takes various well-known themes by Beethoven and transforms them into a modern, sometimes dissonant, accompaniment for the poem “A Silence Haunts Me-After Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament” by Todd Boss. The testament is based on an unsent letter composed by Beethoven to his brothers, detailing, in part, his despair over his impending hearing loss and his thoughts of suicide. This piece is a reminder the composer’s towering spirit to continue composing even in the face of great adversity; Beethoven composed some of his greatest works while being totally deaf.
Coro Vocati included a piece not in the program: an arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence. This was an extraordinarily powerful performance that showcased Simon’s wonderful lyrics, while using the chorus to remind Garfunkel’s angelic singing. This was not an overblown exercise in choral sentimentality; rather it was a slim yet powerfully sensitive cover of a great American song. The sound of the chorus soared and the audience sat enraptured.
During a very hot Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, the concert by Coro Vocati was a great way to quench any thirst that one’s soul might have. These wonderful singers under the direction of Mr. Dickson deserve applause for their preparation, powerful performances, and intriguing program. ■