Choral Arts’ dolorous take on parent-child relationships.

“Pierced to the Heart” was the title of Choral Arts’ concert Friday night. It was described as celebrating the relationships of parents to their children, but it was hardly a happy reflection.

Of the works performed at St. Stephen’s Church in Laurelhurst, from the 15th century to today, three dealt with a parent devastated by the death or impending death of a child, one with the death of a parent, one with a child’s feeling of abandonment, and one with a living relationship between parent and child which, from the music, I felt could be construed as a happy game, but the notes consider could be viewed as abusive.

Robert Bode, the group‘s artistic director says in the notes that it’s dire relationships which have produced compelling music, and perhaps that’s true. Just as stories in the press always lean to the worst, happy familial relationships just aren’t news- or music-worthy.

It would have been a pleasant antidote, though, to have in this program something like Brahms’ Lullaby.

Bode certainly chose some great music. There was a wonderful arrangement of the spiritual “Motherless Child” by Craig Hella Johnson, with a well-sung solo by Emily Herivel.

Dozens of composers have set the 13th century words of the “Stabat mater dolorosa,” with Josquin des Prez’s version picked for this program. It’s music which Choral Arts sings superbly well. The group’s pitch sense is masterly, making for true harmonies into which the listener can sink with pleasure, diction was clear and words heard easily. Although the words are anguished, they are those of a spectator, and the tone of the music is one of serene mourning which the choir captured.

If I had lost a child, I don’t think I would have found Eric Whitacre’s “When David Heard” (an outpouring of grief for the death of his son Absalom) any comfort, though the composer says it was intended for a bereaved father, a friend of his, hoping to give him a measure of peace and meaning.

The music was often crashingly dissonant, the sense discordant, the feeling uneasy. Anguish was here, but no resolution, despite some soft unison repetitions of the words ‘my son.” Musically it went on too long becoming increasingly rambling and disjointed. Yes, a bereaved person may feel just like this portrayal, and grief like this can feel as though it will never go away, but it doesn’t make for a continually interesting piece of music. The work could have done with some strong editing, as there is much good material in it.

The third work dealing with death of a child also had its problems, not in the music but in its execution. Carissimi’s “Jepthe” is an oratorio. When it was written in 17th century Italy, opera was new, and while much loved already for its tale telling and theatrical staging, the Church wasn’t about to have it performed during Lent. Enter the oratorio, which, essentially is opera without the staging. All the drama and emotion must come through the voices or the instruments (for this, Choral Arts used harpsichod, organ and cello).

“Jepthe,” the Biblical story of the victorious general who has promised to sacrifice to God the first living thing greeting him on his return home, only to be met by his only daughter, is a moral tale of obedience, his to God, hers to him, but it has plenty of drama in his horror, her distress.

It’s all there in the music, but Choral Arts did not do it justice. Only the Jepthe, tenor Stephen Rumph, had the requisite dramatic ability and nuance in his voice. The daughter, soprano Sarah Markovits, had the very high notes but inadequate drama, and nor did the chorus provide much. The whole was thus uneven without enough forward motion.

Two works very different form each other, Vaughan Williams’ setting of “Full Fathom Five” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and John David Earnest’s setting of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” completed the program and both were sung superbly well, with the sense of underwater undulations of current in the first, and the portrayals of rollicking fun combined with dizzy swoops in the other. Earnest was present for this work the choir commissoned from him (with Whitmas College), and appeared well pleased with the performance.

Choral Arts is always worth hearing. The Seattle area has a few choirs as good as any in the country, and Choral Arts is one of them.


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