VAE salutes Barber and Menotti

Review by Express contributor Mary Ellyn Hutton

Donald Nally, music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble since the fall of 2009, has taken the 24-voice professional choir in a new direction – straight ahead. From the great wealth of choral music available, he has chosen to focus on the music of our time, finding new and innovative ways to present it.

Such was “American Icons at 100,” performed by VAE and pianist Christopher Allen in collaboration with the Constella Festival of Music and Fine Arts Saturday (Oct. 22) in Memorial Hall. Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti were the icons. Born in 1910 and 1911, respectively, both reached their centenary marks during the past year.

Nally, who wrote the program notes and also addressed the audience from the stage, explained the reason for pairing them on the concert. Barber and Menotti met as students at the Curtis Institute of music in Philadelphia and lived together as partners for 40 years. Both received acclaim as composers (each won two Pulitzer Prizes). Both also knew rejection. Their neo-romantic style of composition fell into disfavor as contemporary music ventured into new directions. Each wrote a deathless classic, Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Each experienced the pain of living alone and feeling forsaken.

Nally had a connection with both composers, he said, having written his doctoral dissertation on the relationship between words and music in Barber’s choral music, and served as director of choruses at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, which was founded by Menotti.

The texts chosen for the concert dwelt heavily on loneliness and disappointment. There were brighter spots, but underneath most of them lay a feeling of loss. The concert opened with Barber’s best known song, “Sure on this shining night” (1938), a gorgeous “presentation” of VAE, Cincinnati’s (and the region’s) finest chorus. With its mixture of pathos and reflection, they wreathed James Agee’s poem in beauty.

The same could be said of the Twelfth Madrigal from Menotti’s 1956 “The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore” (performed in its entirety by VAE under Earl Rivers in 2008). Though written during the height of his popularity, it could have been a prediction of the future: An artist says goodbye on his deathbed to three creatures that represent the work of his youth, mid-life and old age. All have been successively scorned by the townspeople, yet the Artist dies full of love for all.

Openly autobiographical, Menotti’s “Landscapes and Remembrances” (1976) was written as he was leaving the U.S. to live in Scotland. Two movements were performed: “The Sky of Departure,” reflections on leaving America, included a full-voiced, heart-wrenching ”America, goodbye” by the chorus. The unresolved “A Subway Ride in Chicago” conjured the loneliness of passengers unknown to each other. Soloists from the VAE, soprano Samantha Stein, alto Debra van Engen, tenor Anthony Beck and bass Jonathan Stinson, made distinguished contributions.

“Agnus Dei” from Menotti’s “Missa O Pulchritudo” (1979), with soprano YoonGeong Lee, alto Jennifer Trombley, tenor M. Andrew Jones and bass Wesley Brax, was nothing less than anguished, with its repeats of “dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”) and conclusion on a dismal, dissonant interval.

Conveying greater hope were Barber’s “Twelfth Night” (1968) which moved from dark to light, and his “Regina caeli” (1990), which concluded with a big, affirmative “Alleluia.” Barber’s a capella “Reincarnations” (1939-40 on verses by Irish poet James Stephens) offered a contrast, with the bright, enthusiastic “Mary Hynes” (a love poem) and “Anthony O’Daly,” a funeral dirge, that plunged at the end to a soft, hollow unison on “grief.”

Three movements from Barber’s cantata “The Lovers” (1971), a late work on poems by Pablo Neruda, originally for baritone, chorus and orchestra, were heard as arranged for chorus and piano. “Cemetery of Kisses” (Neruda’s “A Song of Despair”) was shattering, with a particularly hard “k” by the singers on the word “shipwreck” and a disconsolate ending (“O farther than everything? It is the hour of departure”).

One of the most touching works on the program was the concluding “To Be Sung on the Water” (1968) by Barber (from “The Blue Estuaries” by Louise Bogan). The interplay of the men’s and women’s voices was “picturesque” here, seeming to capture the motion of waves against the boat (men) and the lover’s goodbye (women).

Enough cannot be said of pianist Allen, who lent color and drama to all he did throughout the concert.

VAE’s next performances are December 10 and 11 – their annual holiday concert. For more info: www.vaecinci.org.

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