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Christopher Hyde

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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Posted: June 10, 2015

Review: An evening of fascinating works performed by the Oratorio Chorale

Written by: Christopher Hyde
Nate Tucker, left, and Jonathan Hess. Courtesy photos

Nate Tucker, left, and Jonathan Hess. Courtesy photos

The concept of combining voice and percussion is an intriguing one, fusing the two oldest instruments known to man. In practice, as performed by the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, with percussionists Nate Tucker and Jonathan Hess, it made for an evening of fascinating works, but without the emotional effect one has come to expect of the chorale in recent years.

One of the most interesting offerings on the program was a clever work called “Glamour,” by Casey Cangelosi, for small percussion instruments and a metronome. In the hands of Jonathan Hess, it was a tour de force of complex rhythmic patterns around and through the strict beats of the metronome, divided into groups of six by a bell before each bar.

Equally fine in its exploration of percussion’s descriptive possibilities was Nate Tucker’s “Nocturne on a Drought,” played by the composer. Every measure bespeaks dryness, a desert landscape with cactus-shaped spikes. It is scored for vibraphone, electric guitar, electronics, auxiliary percussion and a bucket of water, although the latter did nothing to alleviate thirst.

In program notes, Tucker wrote that the work was intended to comment not only on the current drought in California, but also on the dearth of community in a wired world. It did that very well.

The most successful melding of voice and percussion was in a setting of a Jim Togeas poem, “A Depth We Cannot Sound,” by Timothy Takach, which was given its Maine premiere. Scored for choir, vibraphone, marimba and large tom (bass drum), it conveys a sense of wonder at the mystery of the natural world, in spite of scientific explanations.

The concert began with settings, by Peter Klatzow, of five poems by Stephen Watson based on concepts of the San people, who inhabited Southern Africa for 5,000 years. Entitled “Return of the Moon,” it is a celebration of the San and an elegy for the destruction of their culture.

The percussion in this case is the marimba, played at the premiere by Dame Evelyn Glennie. The voices of the tribe were sung by a male sextet, the King’s Singers. Something seems to have been lost in the arrangement for full choir, perhaps a stronger bass voice.

In conclusion, the chorale did its best (which is very good indeed) with the violent contrasts and descriptive scoring of “Odi et Amo” (“I Hate and I Love”), Dominick Argento’s setting of five verses by Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus.

The work could be a score for a soap opera. Argento misses the entire point of Catullus, which is to poke fun at his amours by blowing them up into affairs of the gods. Argento is best at illuminating the passages depicting the sweet evanescence of romance, where percussion is a hindrance, while taking the depths of the poet’s despair entirely too loudly and seriously. He also fails to convey Catullus’ characteristic choppy meter, best exemplified by Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” where percussion would be right at home.

That said, the chorale’s power and dynamic range are still phenomenal. Let us hope that they will be used to better purpose in the next concert.

WHAT: Oratorio Chorale

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick


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