This album is the creative fruit of a unique Bay Area collaboration between San Francisco Choral Artists (Magen Solomon, Artistic Director) and The Alexander String Quartet. My own recent experience with a like-sized chamber choir (24 voices) and string quartet acquainted me with the expressive possibilities of this intimate ensemble. Especially in the resonance of a church (in this album’s case, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, CA), the strings are not overwhelmed by the choir, but rather find their own space to complement the sometimes dense vocal texture.
The first sound we hear on this album is the wizened voice of Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti reciting from his “Challenges to Young Poets”:
Birds-song is not made by machine.
Give your poem wings to fly to the treetops.
Inspired by a sculpture of the same name in front of the poet’s City Lights Bookstore, composer Veronika Krausas’ language of the birds sets passages from five of Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco Poems. Three (1, 3, 5) are jouncy bird-themed exercises in which the strings saw away quick successions of detached notes to create a frenetic energy on which the choir feeds, turning these simple haiku-like phrases into insistent declamations with plenty of dramatic irony. These pieces are separated by two more relaxed, atmospheric musical statements recalling the spare, severe language of Ligeti. No. 4 describes the light and fog of San Francisco, and Krausas sets the vision of night giving way to dawn to a gently shifting blanket of minor chords, sometimes superimposed to create interesting clusters, but ultimately expressing the inscrutability of timeless processes.
SFCA perform a cappella on Hollow Stone, Stephen Leek’s setting of text from Australian poet Randolph Stow’s “Sleep.” The composer has aptly translated a blighted, burned landscape into harrowing vocal textures. Sustained harmonic clusters evoke a flat, desolate expanse, and for much of the piece we get no sense of metrical organization, just stasis, but we also are given a glimpse at the dignity of people whose lives depend on an unforgiving landscape:
my lands mirror the moon in desolation.
But the moon has come. And the tribes
like smoke, seep campward.
Sleep: who are silence;
Make me a hollow stone
Brahms’ Four Quartets, Op. 92, originally for vocal quartet and piano, are here performed with the piano part transcribed for string quartet by Zakarias Grafilo, first violin of the Alexander String Quartet. SFCA’s rich vocal blend is as effective with these Romantic settings as with the freer modern works. “O Schöne Nacht” is a warm paean to the mystical elements of night: “the enchanted moon,” “little stars in a devoted circle of friends,” even the nightingale is given a characteristic leaping sing-song melody (translation from German by Magen Solomon). “Spätherbst” (Late Autumn), on the other hand, is a haunting observation of the winding down of life in a fog-blanketed landscape. The soprano voice pierces the staid limits of the first few lines to effect a true lament.
Beethoven composed the Elegiac Song, Op. 118, to commemorate the wife of his landlord Johann Baptist von Pasqualati on the anniversary of his passing. The halting delivery of these tender words by an anonymous poet recalls some of Mozart’s heartbreaking arias, while also looking forward to Beethoven’s later style in which musical ideas are allowed to develop freely, without the constraint of standard Classical forms and phrasing. “Gently, as you lived, / so has your life concluded,” is set to a heartfelt harmonic progression and cadences that console where words alone must fail.
For Winter Light, composer Michael Gandolfi set two poems by the Imagist poet Amy Lowell that crystallize the individual’s tortured experience with, respectively, nature and passion. “Falling Snow” begins with the strings playing a hurried falling figure in a minor, sounding like the beginning of a string quartet, so complete is the idea. When the voices gently declaim, “The snow whispers around me / And my wooden clogs / Leave holes behind me in the snow,” we realize what the strings have been alluding to musically. “Opal” opens with excited violins in A major over an energetic pizzicato cello, and the voices soon deliver the paradox of Lowell’s relationship with actress Ada Dwyer Russell: “You are ice and fire, / The touch of you burns my hands like snow.” Once again, we hear the choir handling very dense harmonies with a startling clarity, providing dramatic heft while the strings convey the lightness and forward rush of fleeting thoughts.
As a student of Nadia Boulanger, Paul Chihara was exposed to the great early modern French composers, and although many of his recent compositions bear the names of pieces by Debussy, his Clair de Lune is inspired principally by the Verlaine poem:
We’re dancing in the dark so sadly,
Dreaming visions of love in the moonlight.
We are passionate dancers dancing
Singing intimate songs of love.
Various chord inversions hand suspended without resolution, like a weightless ballerina en pointe. Much of the piece features the pulse of a gentle waltz, with the choir eliding words to create a smooth tapestry adorning this dreamscape where sadness and ecstasy can coexist without confusion.
Anchored by fresh interpretations of Brahms and Beethoven, the imaginative new works commissioned for the Alexander String Quartet and SFCA cohere uncannily, as the composers no doubt took advantage of the ensembles’ polished ability to stretch time and evoke an endless range of emotional and picturesque subjects.
San Francisco Choral Artists & The Alexander String Quartet, with strings attached (Forghorn Classics, 2012) | Buy it on Amazon.com
Rob Wendt is a pianist / composer / music educator living in Astoria, NY. You can follow him on twitter: @RobWendt