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It's only fair to open this review with a disclaimer: We're just not into concerts where the pieces are introduced with pithy meditations on life, death and transcendence and lit by candles on the stage. We had enough of that stuff in the 60s.
That being said, and in the interest of accurate reporting, The Raleigh Symphony Chamber Players and the Cary Choral Artists (a mid-sized cappella chorus drawn from the Cary Singers) put together a concept concert entitled "Journey to Light," A very earnest musical contemplation on-uh- life, mortality, war, peace, hope, despair, transmigration of souls, etc. The program was clearly put together to fit the program's spiritual theme rather than with an ear to the artistic value of many of the pieces. While each work (or set) was preceded - or was it followed? - by a mercifully short reading by narrator Harrison Fisher, we kept our focus on the music. Apparently, we were expected to be so transported by the solemn atmosphere that we were officially given permission not to applaud.
The concert opened with a solo cello rendition of musicologist Remo Giazotto's construction built on six measures by Albinoni, generally referred to mistakenly as "Albinoni's Adagio." Giazotto's main contribution to the fragment was its harmonization, so to have that subtracted left us with a slow tune partially by Albinoni. Cellist Jane Salemson continually rushed the rests at the ends of phrases, a problem which no amount of otherwise commendable dynamic gradation and artistic planning could cover up. This piece, which was paired with a reading about a cellist who played to a bomb crater in Sarajevo for 22 days in memory of the twenty-two victims, has become a funereal cliché that needs to be retired along with Pachelbel's Canon and other such over used works.
There followed the highlight of the program, a set of a cappella motets by Franz Liszt ("O salutaris hostia,"), 17th century Anglican composer Richard Ferrant ("Call to Remembrance"), Charles Villiers Stanford ("Justorum animae") and 17th century composer Gregorio Allegri's famous litany ("Miserere"). To this was added contemporary composer Daniel Gawthrop's "Sing me to Heaven." Director Lawrence Speakman's group was together, musical and in tune. This is the first time we've heard this permutation of the Concert Singers of Cary, who, if this performance is any indication, represent another star in the Triangle's array of outstanding choral ensembles.
Another virtuoso performance was put in by alto flautist Patty Angevine in contemporary Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Good Night . The work is scored for alto flute, piano (Lanette Lind), soprano (Teresa Fernandez) and tam tams (Jack Roller), but it is the flute that predominates. Górecki has made his way to the top of the pop charts with his works but certainly not because of their beat. There seems to be a separate neural pathway for even the most hard-core rock fans that is attracted to Gregorian chant, Hildegard von Bingen and meditative minimalist works such as Górecki's. The program notes described this work as ".an incantation, rarely rising above a whisper, disembodied, somewhere between waking consciousness and a luminous transcendent state," and it was indeed more of an aid to meditation than anything else. Good Night is comprised of slow descending two-note motives (diads) or short simple repeated motives in the lower end of the flute's range. Angevine achieved a real tour de force in her use of subtly varied levels of pianissimo and her clarity of tone in the instrument's challenging lowest register. She was accompanied, however, by the "plang, plang, plang" of the piano part, a veritable Chinese torture. The soprano and tam tams were saved for the end of this interminable piece, the former jarringly strident, given the delicacy of the instrumental parts.
Speakman's chorus returned during the second half to perform a hideous transcription of the adagio from Samuel Barber's String Quartet No. 1 set to the text of the " Agnus Dei " of the Catholic mass. The subtle but complex harmonic changes in the inner voices of this work were, unfortunately, beyond the chorus's ability. But then, there is a reason why this work was written originally for string quartet and not voices. While a wonderful work in and of itself, the adagio has also become clichéd.
The string quartet that should have played the Barber - violinists Tasi Matthews and Joan Beck, violist Michael Castello and cellist Jane Salemson - were instead joined by clarinetist Jim Williams to perform Canadian composer Elizabeth Raum's Searching for Sophia . The work's three movements, "Dance," "Prayer," and "Fantasy on a traditional Theme," are rhapsodic in structure and borrow a fair number of sonorities and harmonies from the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. While the strings were a little rough at times, Williams's performance was both sensitive and sensuous. Searching for Sophia , while generally accessible, is a meandering piece whose goals remain vague - perhaps Raum's still searching.
By this time, we'd heard meditations from the Catholics, Protestants and New Age seekers of transcendent knowledge. But no program of this sort would be complete without a Native American presence. Since Native American cultures are generally without a developed musical tradition, Lanette Lind's, Song of the Earth Spirits for chorus and chamber ensemble filled that niche to end the program.