Volti’s concerts are always fun and interesting. What was most interesting to me about the one I went to a couple of weeks ago is that I’ve now heard them often enough so that I am past the “hey, that was nice!” stage. It takes practice to listen to new music as well as familiar. This concert was billed as “Asian and Latin Influences” which I guess was fairly accurate, but a joint concert with the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir is what it really was (Robert Geary directs both choirs). There were lots of beaming parents and grandparents crowding the pews of St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley.
I really enjoyed the first half of the concert. One highlight was Ligeti’s characteristically witty and whimsical Ket kanon (Two Canons), sung by the children in their pure high voices. The program opened with Pronto Desapareceremos (Soon we will disappear), a setting in Nahuatl of some ancient philosophical lines on the transitoriness of existence. It began with a soloist (if the program gave her name, I couldn’t find it, but she was very good) standing in front of the church and the rest of the chorus answering her solo from the back. A number of pieces that evening used such spatial sound effects.
The transitoriness of life was a theme picked up in Being: Two Collins Song, a Volti commission and premiere from Yu-Hui Chang. She was one of the composers there that evening, along with Jean Ahn and Mark Winges. Right before the concert they had a panel discussion moderated by Geary. This was a mixed bag, as such things usually are. The composers made some interesting points about the importance they place on communication and having the texts performed clearly (something at which Volti excels, in my experience), but ironically the discussion was a little hard to hear; the audience was getting settled and moving and whispering and church acoustics are designed for singing and preaching and not really for conversation, even one aided by a microphone. The two Billy Collins poems are The Night House and Shoveling Snow with Buddha, and despite Collins’ reputation for accessibility these are fairly dense and subtle texts, which Chang and the chorus handled beautifully.
I really liked Jean Ahn’s Zeteo, the final piece of the first half, which was also a premiere and a Volti commission. To paraphrase the program, the text is based on three major Greek words from Deuteronomy 4:29: zeteo (to seek), kardia (heart), and psyche (soul). The final phrase, “And you will find him,” is in English. I liked the buzzing waspy sound of the consonantal flurries, followed by the elongated, elegant vowels.
As you may have gathered I did not enjoy the second half of the concert as much. It opened with the west coast premiere of el sonido dulce de tu voz by Orlando Jacinto Garcia. This piece also spreads out the chorus to add a spatial dimension to the sound. A glockenspiel plinks while the singers intone various words from the phrase “regresare en la noche al oir el sonido dulce de tu voz suave” (I will return in the night upon hearing the sweet sound of your soft voice). The composer dedicated the piece to his wife, which is lovely and makes me feel like a bit of a heel for finding something too stereotypically “Latin” about hearing words like noche and dulce whispered in urgent murmurs. Just a personal reaction to that burden of “the passionate” that half my ancestry carries.
The next piece was Ikikaiku (Eternal Echo) by the Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas. It’s based on a section from the Kalevala, and that sounded great to me until Geary informed us that we were supposed to join in and sing back to the chorus at the end. Not to get too Louis Quatorze here, but: No. If I am paying to hear you sing, then I do not expect you to demand that I sing to you. Sing for me, my minions! Dance and play your twangling instruments! Make me smile, and I will pay you and applaud you!
That’s the natural order of things. Besides, there’s something about sitting on a hard pew waiting for the main event to start while the choir director fixes us with that look both demanding and pleading as he insists on rehearsing us in something we don’t want to sing – well, it just brings it all back. I half expected Mother Manuela to come hissing down the aisle threatening a demerit in religion for anyone caught not singing, not that she, a tiny old-school Spanish nun, would have set foot in an Episcopal church anyway without a papal dispensation.
The final piece of the evening was Luna, Nova Luna, a brand new piece by Mark Winges for both choirs. It’s a collage of texts on the moon, some by the composer, who apparently has the same thing for the moon that I have. Yes, the moon is indeed lovely and poetically useful. There were for my taste too many passages designed for the children to act cute or make funny sounds. The piece was fine but just did not really grab me. Volti always has a reception after their concerts, which is quite nice of them. They really do great work, and if the occasional piece doesn’t appeal to me much, I just figure that helps me appreciate the other pieces even more.