Snarky and the sublime: the Esoterics and the Seattle Men’s Chorus

Alfred Schnittke

Some ensembles pad their December concerts with traditional holiday music ranging from GF Handel’s Messiah (which the composer never intended as the holiday staple it has become) to tapestries of Christmas carols, often set in new or unfamiliar ways. A handful of ensembles in town buck these traditional formulas for programs that are different, but in the holiday spirit. Orchestra Seattle’s performance of Saint Saens Christmas Oratorio this weekend is in this spirit. On the extreme ends of the spectrum are two groups – the Esoterics and the Seattle Men’s Chorus – with completely different points of view on what makes a successful choral performance.

Most Decembers, for me, are quiet months. I avoid the Hallelujahs and Jingle Bells as much as possible; besides, no one does the Messiah better than the Chicago Symphony and Georg Solti. I avoid Christmas concerts not because I dislike holiday music or lack the requisite cheer, but because the art and entertainment of the season has become too banal and cliché. Someday, I’d like to hear the Messiah played in June.

The Esoterics, a Seattle based choral ensemble which focuses primarily on new and contemporary music, finished a series of concerts this past Sunday that was anything but cliché. The Esoterics’s season is pegged unconventionally on the calendar year, and not the more typical September to June concert season. With their recently performed December concerts, the Esoterics were ending their 16th season, and not presenting a midseason program designed to warm the soul and put us all in a festive mood. Chiaroscura, as the recent concert was titled, was a meditation on lightness and darkness. The program was a heavy affair of daunting choral music that included music by John Joubert, Richard Strauss, and Alfred Schnittke. If you have ever heard a piece by Schnittke, you’ll agree his music is the opposite of holiday cheer!

For the final concert of the season, the group sang in West Seattle’s Holy Rosary Church. The church, an unassuming, neighborhood parish, has some of the best acoustics in Seattle. The space is big, but not too big. Music reverberates nicely and the unadorned architecture helps left and move sounds so effortlessly that they betray the hard work and effort of the performers at the front of the church.

Holy Rosary was an ideal venue to hear Strauss’s stirring Deutsche Motette and Schnittke’s Concerto for chorus. According to the program notes, the Motette was composed by Strauss on a dare from the Berlin Philharmonic chorus which wanted the legendary composer to write a piece impossible to perform. The roughly seventeen minute work, was originally set for a sixteen part chorus and four soloists. The Esoterics performed a modified version, prepared by the chorus’s director Eric Banks, which removed most of the solo parts while preserving every note of music from the original score. The Banks version of the piece resonated through the church with lilting beauty. Strauss’s complex, overlapping, but often static sounding textures drifted pleasingly because of the combined efforts of the group. I was so struck by the quality of the performance, and Strauss’s brilliant writing, that I wondered what the music loving world was missing by not having a Strauss equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – an heroic piece of concert music for orchestra and chorus.

When the intermission ended, the chorus returned to sing Schnittke’s Concerto for chorus. Since his death in 1998, Alfred Schnittke’s music has garnered a cult following, some comparing him in importance to Dimitri Shostakovich – who influenced Schnittke’s early music, and like Schnittke, suffered under the heavy-handed Soviet system. The four movements, each relying on psalms by Grigor Narekatsi, were poignant reminders that there remains a remarkable amount of music from the last century that goes unperformed. Compared to Schnittke’s orchestral and chamber music, the composition, for the average concert-goer, is a comprehensible introduction to the composer’s late style. Under Banks’s leadership, complex dotted passages, melodies imposed over droning counterlines, and moments where the music pulled listeners near an a capella abyss were sung cohesively and precisely by the singers.  The work  culminated in an beautifully arresting “amen.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Seattle Men’s Chorus, in their holiday concert Santa Baby, left the serious music to other groups and sought, successfully, to entertain a nearly sold out Benaroya Hall on Monday night.

If there was any doubt what the goal of the concert was, a quick review of the program would have clued the clueless. A mix of carols, transformed pop songs, and campy numbers like Heavy Christmas which mashed music by Strauss, Wagner, and other Classical Masters into a humorous fantasia, filled out most of the program. Rousing numbers closed out both halves of the program.

The first half ended with Bolly Jolly Holiday a Bollywood inspired, brightly colored, infectious tune, and the second half officially closed with a tribute to Michael Jackson – Thriller Christmas. Christmas zombies weren’t the end, however, and before the curtain finally fell a troupe of muscular men accompanied Arnaldo Chanteuse (a drag queen) on stage for a superbly sung “Santa Baby.” There wasn’t any Schnittke, Strauss, or the ardency of John Joubert. But there were touching songs signed by the chorus and ASL interpreter Kevin Gallagher.

It seemed to me not enough attention was paid to the natural acoustics of Benaroya Hall.  I expected the Seattle Men’s Chorus to be better attuned to the acoustic opportunities of the space since they sing there regularly.  This was the only downside of an otherwise enjoyable concert.   Benaroya Hall is one of the best halls in the country; fugues and multi-part choruses can be etched with stunning clarity because of its acoustics. Strauss’s Deutsche Motette, with its abundance of counterpoint, would have sounded awesome in Benaroya Hall. Most of the pieces the Seattle Men’s Chorus sang were entertaining, but basic. Soloists were amplified and so were the few instrumentalists. Natural is usually better, and good performers should be able to accommodate each other – especially in space like Benaroya Hall.

Both the Esoterics and the Seattle Men’s Chorus succeeded in their recent performances because they were different and honest about their own strengths as ensembles. Almost no other choral group in Seattle does challenging contemporary choral music as well as the Esoterics. Eric Banks’s ensemble doesn’t need a smorgasbord of holiday favorites to attract a large, appreciative audience a few weeks before Christmas – Schnittke and Strauss are just fine. And, when it comes to choral music that is purely entertaining, the Seattle Men’s Chorus is a Seattle (and national) original.  Only the Men’s Chorus could get away with a mocking number that included the Partridge Family, John Denver, and Han Solo.

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