The dark, cavernous interior of St. Peters Chelsea seemed to demand whispered, hushed voices from the audience members slowly streaming into the sanctuary before April 13th’s Talea Ensemble performance. Devout silence was maintained as the pews, wooden and ancient, began to fill up. Many audience members chose to sit alone in their sectioned pew, all of us there to bear witness and reverence to new music.
Rebecca Saunders’ fury II for double bass and ensemble is a piece of anguished and subdued fury, coincidentally articulated by a sorrowful siren that passed by the church at just the right time. The pizzicato and glissandi effects in the bass (performed by Greg Chudzik) were quite effective, and, married with on point percussion including a lion’s roar, the work sounded how angry deep space must feel. Originally commissioned by the Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden and Casa da Musica Porto, fury II is made of sounds you’ve heard before, put together in ways you haven’t.
Courtney Bryan’s In the Heart of God for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, is inspired by Khalil Gibran’s “On Love” from The Prophet. Just like the text itself (lines like “To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy” and “For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you”), In the Heart of God is mellow, golden honey sweetness; music to be nostalgic to. While I craved more harmonic nuance, the piece was the right warm lull of sensuous devotion to balance out the sparkling dark blue sound world of fury II.
Basket of Figs by Anna-Louise Walton, using poetry by Ellen Bass, is an amuse-bouche of a piece. The program notes discuss how Basket of Figs “explores the use of wind instruments as an extension of the human voice.” Treating the voice so that the delicate shading of timbre and articulation meant that often the audience couldn’t understand the words being sung. It was possible to understand the nuances, subtle and sweet and rich, but for a piece that ends much too soon, isn’t that enough?
The second half of the concert was dedicated to scenes from Maxwell Dulaney’s one-act opera Already Root. A world premiere performance of these scenes, the work dwells upon Eurydice’s experiences within the happenings of the Orpheus myth. Orpheus himself is not a character in this opera, but Hermes is. Exquisitely sung by soprano Sharon Harms and tenor Brian Giebler, these characters spoke, hummed, and murmured Lauren Slaughter’s libretto based on poems by Joanna Klink and Rainer Maria Rilke.
The cornucopia of primal-feeling overtones and flutterings in the orchestra made a subtle background for the text that was set in such a way that I was reminded of the red room dream scene from Twin Peaks. The effect of molding the text to the music in a manner that focuses on the syllables and not the words themselves accomplishes many things, though at times the poetry felt veiled at what should have been its most beautiful moments. The sotto voce effect often employed throughout the entire ensemble felt like the music was just out of focus, hiding somewhere behind an aural curtain. In the fourth scene, a moment of bowed crotale overtones melting in the air with soft soprano lines was especially haunting.
Talea Ensemble is known for tackling difficult, technique-driven music with aplomb and charisma. This program of ornate, complex works was carefully tended to, beautifully and respectfully presented, and well-led by conductor James Baker. With their ten year anniversary coming up during the 2018-2019 season, Talea certainly has much to celebrate.