Monday, May 1, 2017

The Garden of Song: The Genesis Chamber Singers Offers New Music For Old Words

The delightful concert by the Genesis Chamber Singers we heard Saturday night at The James Library & Center for the Arts in Norwell, titled "William The Bard" offered modern musical settings of texts by Shakespeare, including the world premiere of a work by composer Adria Stolk. Adria Stolk happened to be sitting behind us to hear her new piece, commissioned by -- no coincidence -- The Genesis Chamber Singers, and engaged in a brief Q&A with the audience shortly after the last note. The interaction appears typical of the group's fresh approach -- new music, young singers, and a willingness to engage.
            The new ensemble of singers and director possessing beautiful voices and superb musicality was created to bring high quality chamber music specifically to South Shore venues like The James. Their next performance takes place in Cohasset. They've also performed in Hingham and Quincy and other local communities.
            According to the group's mission's statement, the "vibrant and engaging performances of a wide variety of choral chamber music [seeks]to enrich the lives of south Shore communities and makes connections with new audiences."
            Judging from what we heard, the mission is well director Joseph Young and the ensemble's highly trained singers. Saturday's concert was titled "William the Bard" and included musical settings of texts from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets by 20th century master Ralph Vaughan Williams and a flowering of 20th century composers from diverse backgrounds. The music is modern in the best sense -- fresh, original, daring, strong, and also clever, charming, and challenging.
            The group performed Vaughan Williams' setting of "Full Fathom Five," one of the most familiar and often set-to-music of Shakespeare's songs from plays (this one from The Tempest). The lyrics begin: "Full Fathom five thy father lies./ Of his bones are corals made./ Those are pearls that were his eyes." Two other pieces by the 20th century English titan followed.
            Stolk's piece, titled "Doubt," sets perhaps the most original choice for a text, four lines from "Hamlet": "Doubt thou the stars are fire/ Doubt that the sun doth move/ Doubt that truth be a liar,/ But never doubt I love."
            The composer said that she tried to make the music reflective of the word "doubt," because the words is so prominent in the four lines and also because the concept is central to Hamlet's tragedy. She did that by setting the middle two lines well outside of harmony, and then returning to a minor key for the final powerful line. The piece is short but moving, and the beauty of the last line the greater for the musical distance traveled to get there.
            For me, part of the work's power comes from remembering the Prince of Denmark's tragic renunciation of the very pledge he made in that final line. The four-line text is taken from a letter the prince wrote to Ophelia before his father's murder. After the murder he chillingly tells her "I never loved thee" -- punishing the daughter for the sins of the fathers. And making a liar of himself. 
            Other works performed include fours songs by Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjavi in the 80s (including another setting of "Full Fathom Five") and a rousingly dark and lively rendition of the witches' dialogue in Macbeth, titled "Double, Double Toil and Trouble."
            "Three Madrigals: by Emma Lou Diemer" strikes me as a classic evocation of the Elizabeth sensibility, since people did sing madrigals in Renaissance times. The first of these "O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?" is one of the most familiar songs taken from the plays, often set, recorded and performed. The song was written for "Twelfth Night," one of the richest of Shakespeare's comedies and (I believe) the play with the most songs.
            The concert also featured several versions of Shakespeare's sonnets, including two settings of "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" by Swedish composer Nils Lindbergt and George Shearing, respectively. Shearing is famous for his song "Lullably of Birdland" and his collaborations with 'song stylist' Mel Torme. All his s settings here sounded like elegant-school jazz to me, an effective contrast to some of the denser textures of the other pieces.
            The concert also included works by Romanian born Gyorgy Orban and Ward Swingle, who founded the Swingle Singers in the early 60s and of whom Young writes in the program "Swingle essentially invented the modern contemporary a cappella style 'where the whole point twas that we use our voice instrumentally.'" 
            And that in a nutshell is what The Genesis Cantata Singers did so well in this program. 
            The group's gala fund-raiser, "Gift of Music" offering wine and hors d'oeuvres along with your music, takes place Saturday, June 10, 7 p.m., at First Parish Church in Cohasset.