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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Tomorrow’s Voices: Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 15 May, 2005 (BH)

Traditional: Dona Nobis Pacem
Kurt Bestor: Prayer of the Children
Cary John Franklin: Listen! (2004)
        Como Park High School Concert Choir
        Carole Whitney, conductor

William Byrd: Sing Joyfully
Olaf C. Christiansen: Light Everlasting
Cary John Franklin: Wild Geese (2003)
         Red Wing High School Concert Choir
         Mikkel Gardner, conductor

Cary John Franklin: Everyone Sang (2004)
James Erb, arr.: Shenandoah
Alessandro Scarlatti: Exsultate Deo
        Minnetonka High School Choir
        Paula Holmberg, conductor


Cary John Franklin: With a Poet’s Eye (1987)
         VocalEssence Ensemble Singers
         Robert Griffin, tenor
         Philip Brunelle, conductor

Aaron Copland: “The Promise of Living” from The Tender Land (1954)
        Massed choir
        Sally Messner, soprano
        Kurtis Parlin, tenor
        Charles Kemper, piano
        Philip Brunelle, conductor

Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms (1965)
         VocalEssence Chorus with orchestra
         Solo Quartet: Margaret Sabin, Jaime Nelson, Thomas          Larson, Deric W. Craig
         Richard Schrom, boy soprano
          Philip Brunelle, conductor


Cary John Franklin: Gloria (2005, world premiere)
         Massed choir with orchestra
         Lori Lewis, soprano
         Philip Brunelle, conductor

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things
-- excerpt from Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

In the last three years, composer Cary John Franklin has been working with the choirs of three Minnesota high schools, and Philip Brunelle’s masterful VocalEssence ensemble presented the results of their study in this culminating concert, an afternoon that was notable for the quality of the pieces, the caliber of the vocalizing, and extra-musical qualities running through the entire afternoon like an optimistic undercurrent.

Each school presented three works, including one by Franklin. The Como Park High School Concert Choir made a striking beginning with a traditional Dona Nobis Pacem, here intoned slightly in the background, while one of the group’s young men read a poem by Elizabeth Wright, “Do You Not Hear the Cries?” with sober conviction. The Como Park group spaced themselves apart onstage, a risky maneuver since it affects how well the singers can hear each other (and stay in tune), but I am pleased to report that they succeeded, and more so. Under the dedicated direction of Carole Whitney, these fine young musicians might have bettered some professional ensembles, and indeed, the same comment could apply to the other schools. Como Park finished with Kurt Bestor’s moving Prayer of the Children and Franklin’s Listen!, the latter with some intriguing chord progressions that distinguished all of his works.

One of the highlights of the day was Franklin’s poignant Wild Geese, using a striking poem by Mary Oliver, and given a beautifully serene performance by the Red Wing High School Concert Choir, directed by Mikkel Gardner. Franklin knows how to make singers look good, extracting maximum results from a minimum of means, and the Red Wing singers should feel mighty proud of the results they achieved. Wild Geese would be a highlight of any choral concert I can imagine. The Red Wing group filled out its set with a brightly colored Sing Joyfully by William Byrd, and Olaf C. Christiansen’s inspirational Light Everlasting.

The last of the three, the Minnetonka High School Concert Choir began its beautifully considered set with Everyone Sang, whose vivid words are by Siegfried Sassoon. James Erb’s popular arrangement of Shenandoah ends with a gorgeous long unison note, flawlessly floating out into the audience, and the final Scarlatti Exsultate Deo sprayed into the air like fountains. Conductor Paula Holmberg was the group’s enthusiastic guide in all of this, and should be warmly thanked along with her colleagues, Mr. Gardner and Ms. Whitney, for years of work with young singers that has obviously paid off, judging from these very fine results. With much depressing news in the classical music world, it was inspiring to see so many young musicians displaying such ardor, commitment and professionalism. Even their entrances and exits were precisely executed to minimize the usual lull while people rearrange themselves onstage.

Franklin’s agility and sensitivity were brought into high relief by a work of considerably more difficulty, With a Poet’s Eye, enchantingly characterized by Brunelle and VocalEssence. The texts were extracted from poets who were invited to wander through London’s Tate Gallery and respond to its art. The set opens humorously with “The Uncertainty of the Poet” by Wendy Cope, whose first four lines are: I am a poet. / I am very fond of bananas. / I am bananas. / I am very fond of a poet. Cary set these in a jittery, highly syncopated rhythm, with transparent a capella writing, and it would be hard not to titter as the lines tumble over themselves into Dalí-esque surrealism. The second poem, Alison Fell’s Rodin’s Muse, is virtually one long unison breath, with slight divisi creating a brief chorale section in the middle. It opens: She writhes like hawthorns, / is dark and demented, / her impossibly heavy head / a branch of thoughts the winds have knotted. All this unison passagework is a stern test that the group managed with almost offhanded ease.

Connie Bensley’s “The Badminton Game” inspired Franklin to set the words to lilting phrases, ending with the men in a deadpan, softly delivered solo as they describe Uncle Edward vanishing behind his morning newspaper. Soloist Robert Griffin was lustrous in “Coming From Evening Church,” with the chorus humming in the background. And last was “The Merry-Go-Round At Night” by Dannie Abse, with the composer giving the ensemble a rhythmic workout, creating the sensation of a carousel veering out of control. Concluding the first half, the entire group of over 250 singers combined in a resplendent Copland classic, “The Promise of Living,” with Charles Kemper as the alert pianist, and rich-hued soloists Sally Messner and Kurtis Parlin.

After intermission, Brunelle’s incisive direction of Bernstein’s rarely done Chichester Psalms only confirmed that the work should find an audience more often. The intriguing strength of this set is in its disparate parts, with portions for the men and women divided in groups, and much of it brilliant in that brazen Bernstein way. The many jazzy, almost primal syncopations showed off VocalEssence’s expert diction and phrasing. Special praise for Richard Schrom, whose boy soprano sounded clear and pure in the second part, for cellist Joseph Johnson, whose solo in the third section only highlighted the caliber of the orchestra as a whole, and for Robert Baca’s final stirring trumpet call.

For the conclusion, Franklin penned a Gloria that used the same instrumentation as the Bernstein, and is intended to provide music that is challenging and musically involving, yet not too difficult for singers with varying levels of expertise. Franklin’s language is primarily tonal, yet with unexpected chord progressions that keep the mix from becoming too cloying. In the third “Domine Deus,” soloist Lori Lewis sounded lovely over slow-moving pulses in the orchestra, a nice parallel to the boy soprano part in the Bernstein. The “Miserere Nobis” uses an ascending phrase, repeated and growing in intensity. The final “Quoniam” is broadly exultant, with brass fanfares and percussion pin spots, and it would be hard not to be moved by the full blast of the enormous assemblage onstage.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Franklin before the performance, and we commiserated over the dearth of high-quality works for non-professional singers, as well as works that audiences might want to hear performed again. (Hearing a good piece once is wonderful; hearing it two, three or more times is even better.) His dedication to changing that status quo is admirable, and in tandem with Brunelle, made a deeply satisfying afternoon on many levels.

Bruce Hodges

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)