Friday, April 23, 2010

Cantemus sings Mother Nature's charms

One of the things we like about Cantemus is how the North Shore chorus always seems to include at least one “oddball” piece in their programs, something that throws you off balance a little — like last year’s take on R. Murray Schafer’s startling, magical “Snowforms,” a piece that doesn’t look or sound like anything remotely choral, that requires a leap of faith to be successfully performed. Or how the group may, on occasion, throw standard repertoire under the bus, just for a moment, with a program like “Voice of Jazz: Cantemus Swings,” a concert that found the 30-plus voice chorus “fronting” a six-piece jazz band, saxophones and all. And while folks from the chorus, like the publicist and music director may cringe a bit at the “oddball” characterization, they understand it and maybe even nourish it, knowing that they have a devoted audience — folks who have, as Music Director Gary Wood puts it, “been following the group for years, who are extremely supportive and are open to new experiences.” And Cantemus is doing it again with ”The Woodland Quiet: Songs of Nature and Beauty,” the spring program the North Shore chorus will bring to Newburyport next week.

At first blush, the program does not seem out of the ordinary. You’ve got your nature-themed works by major composers like Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Haydn — and now that the spring monsoons have finally ended, for now, we can restore our severely tested relationship with Mother Nature. You’ve got a couple of modern composers, the time-tested poetry by Goethe, Rossetti, Whitman and Millay — and then you’ve got “Earthsongs,” a nine-minute composition for piano, oboe and chorus by David Brunner, a professor at the University of Central Florida. The piece is not so unusual in form (despite its antiphonal section, which has two semi-independent groups of voices alternating musical phrases, which is unusual in secular music) as it is in content: It uses texts from decidedly non-standard sources: the 19th-century geologist James Gates Percival, a Buddhist writing from the “Sutta Nipata”; and a text from the United Nations Environmental Sabbath Program — all of which, the composer says, ”speak of the wonders of nature and of the importance of protecting the animals, caring for the plants and nurturing one another.”

 The program begins with “Waldesnacht,” a Brahms song. “I remembered some opening lyrics, translated from the original German,” Wood says, “something like ‘wondrous cool, thou woodland quiet.’ It seemed an intriguing statement, filled with lots of programming possibilities.” He began collecting songs that riff on that theme, like ”Woodland Bells” by Stephen Chatman. “These two opening works attempt to set the tone,” says Wood. “Music from the 19th century, then from the 21st, German texts and English texts, part song texts and evocative poetry, choral singing a cappella and accompanied, all celebrating Nature.” The program also features some of Mendelssohn’s “Songs of the Open Air,” one of Delius’ “To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water” works and a selection of Dvorak’s “Songs of Nature.” A contemporary song by Daniel Hall, for women’s voices with piano and oboe accompaniment, is set to words by Emily Dickinson that begin, “These are the days when birds come back…” Haydn’s “The Storm,” a madrigal, is the first time the composer wrote music for an English text, and captures the calamity and calmness of the sea. The 23-song program will close with the oboist and chorus performing Chatman’s “Thou Whose Harmony is the Music of the Spheres.”

Joining Cantemus and accompanist Frances Burmeister will be oboist Margaret Herlehy, principal oboist of the Hanover Chamber Orchestra and the Granite State Symphony, who also performs with Sospiri and Infinities ensembles.

JUST THE FACTS: Cantemus will perform “The Woodland Quiet: Songs of Nature and Beauty” at 7:30 p.m. May 1 at First Congregational Church, 12 School St., Rockport; and 4 p.m. May 2 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 166 High St., Newburyport. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors and can be purchased online at Save $2 by purchasing tickets at The Newburyport Printmaker, Nazir’s of Wenham, Norris Gallery and Frame Shop in Ipswich, the Book Shop of Beverly Farms, Toad Hall in Rockport and Gloucester Music. Admission is free for students age 21 and under.

JUST THE FOLKS: Performers in Cantemus come from 15 communities on the North Shore and New Hampshire. Here is the current lineup: Manchester-by-the-Sea: Music Director Gary Wood and singers Isabella Bates, David McCue and Anne Wood. Haverhill: Accompanist Frances Burmeister. Beverly: D. Scott Hufford, Pamela Morris, Richard Salandrea. Bradford: Alison Garner. Byfield: Doug Guy. Essex: Betsy Vicksell. Hamilton: Marcy Homer. Ipswich: Bill Effner, Gary Freeman, Hugh McCall, Anne Maguire, Dorothy Monnelly, Nat Pulsifer Sr., Pat Rolinger, Debby Twining. Lynnfield: Phil Boehmke, Priscilla March. Melrose: Bill Dowdall. Newbury: Norm Stein. Peabody: Marjorie Short. Rockport: Marcia Siegel. Wenham: Jamie Cabot, David Geikie, Bill Holloway, Betsy Lebel, Conrad Willeman. West Newbury: Michael Fosburg, Susan Nash. Durham, N.H.: Sydney van Asselt.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Griffins, lessons at Carriage House

Something completely different, classical music fans: Violinist Nicholas Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim, half of the Borromeo String Quartet, will present what they’re calling “an exploratory concert of masterworks,” which is a little bit music and a little bit lecture. Before each piece, the husband-and-wife team reviews interesting aspects of the music, highlighting points through examples and manuscripts projected on a screen — and then roll the pieces out for an informed spin around the musical block. The program will include Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D major, and Chaconne for solo violin, BWV 1004; Bartok’s Sonata for Violin Solo, Sz.117 and Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello, which the composer dedicated to his pal Claude Debussy. Does any parent names kids Claude anymore? Kim and Kitchen, also faculty members at New England Conservatory, will be joined by violinists Mai Motobuch and Kristopher Tong. And here’s something else to look out for: their axes. Kitchen plays the famous Guarneri Del Gesu violin known as the “Baron Vitta,” which was entrusted into his care after it was given to the Library of Congress by Miyoko Yamane Goldberg — the wife of legendary violinist Szymon Goldberg. The idea is that it would ultimately be reunited with its original twin, the violin Fritz Kreisler played. Kim plays a cello carved by Peregrino Zanetto in 1576, one of the very oldest cellos in the world, adorned with evocative painted griffins.

This is the last performance of the Firehouse’s Home Concert series. It takes place at 7:30 p.m. April 10 at the Carriage House, 203 High St., Newburyport. Tickets are $60, or $55 for Firehouse members. The cost includes a wine reception, dessert, coffee and conversation after the concert. Tickets are available by calling 978.462.7336 or logging on at The photo of Kitchen and Kim are courtesy of Christian Steiner.