Performing Arts: Music
May 29, 2016
Schola Cantorum on Hudson forms its twenty-first season with the timely, tenured, and continually renewing theme of immigration, presenting a program similarly comprised of choral repertoire, new, old, and revisited. “Mending the Sky” situates that which gets fixed as something transcendent of the borders we navigate down below.

The concert, nestled in the sanctuary of St. John’s in the Village, opened with the new – a premiere by young composer Jake Runestad, entitled “One Flock.” Poet Todd Boss runs with the borderless idea via bird migration as metaphor, keeping matters elevated. Consecutive falling melismas, possible to have been sung at once are instead spatially situated to spin from different sections, percolating the sound. The use of space extends from the musical to the physical as soloists drift among the pews, singing solos at various proximities to their audience, the resulting counterpoint contrasts the more dominant harmonic language of slowly shimmering homophony.

Termed “choral drama,” as opposed to the purely sonically dramatic tradition of oratorio, there is acting and blocking – singers reacting to their own sounds as pedestrians, looking overhead and running in fear of the unknown. All the singers end up in the audience, such that director Dr. Deborah Simpkin King faces us as she conducts the chorus, flocking slowly out the sanctuary. Instrumentalists, meant to be disregarded as pit orchestra, stay attached to their instruments, nonetheless visually absurd as they remain aloof to the singers’ frenzy that consumes the entire space. As such, choral drama as a form has yet to fully be performatively codified, lest it further deepen the false dichotomy of the terms “singer” and “musician.”

Counterbalancing a program cushioned by pieces more compact and hummable was Ronald Perera’s “The Golden Door,” another choral drama divided into movements following a group of immigrants. Beginning with an aggressive bureaucratic questionnaire of migratory suitability, we go from boarding dock to ship, where regal chords dissipate into sharp dissonances against an Eastern European undercurrent. The text, also by Perera, is thankfully un-poetic, highlighting instead pedestrian descriptions of the experience. It takes over, however, as descriptions of tender kissed and hugs between strangers are not believably accompanied by the truly ineffable sound of such a sensation. Ending with a long listing of immigrant names and occupations, we arrive ashore with an unfortunately dynamically stuck culmination to a piece explicitly about journey. Many dances go on too long in order to fill a mammoth piece of music.

Analogously in choral drama, otherwise inventive music trudges on to fill text that is more script than libretto such that it would not cohere as an independent entity, additionally leaving the composition as a whole to do more telling than showing. On top of downloadable slideshows of pictures and text, albeit an inventive attempt at audience engagement, it seems as though choral drama has an unintentional penchant for inhibiting listener imaginations for the sake of digestibility. Nevertheless, Schola is fully committed in performance to developing the form’s potential.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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