May 27, 2011
Romanticism, Tone Paintings and Modern Takes on Folk Tunes
By ALLAN KOZINN
The New York Times
The New Amsterdam Singers have explored music ranging from 15th-century sacred works to modern secular pieces in the 40 years since Clara Longstreth founded the group, and the choir’s performances have always been spirited and finely polished. The group’s real charm, though, is its passion for contemporary American music. Having built relationships with choral composers around the country, Ms. Longstreth has made a point of building smart thematic programs around their work.
The choir’s concert on Thursday evening at the Church of the Holy Trinity, “With a Lily in Your Hand,” had a dual theme: the first part of the program explored Romanticism and tone painting in recent American choral music; the second half, sung mostly by the group’s smaller chamber choir, focused on modern reconsiderations of folk melodies, not all them straightforward arrangements.
Mark Kilstofte, for example, could claim folkloric bona fides for the Agnus Dei from his “Missa l’Homme on the Range” — someone has been listening to Peter Schickele — because “Home on the Range” is quoted in its bass line. But “L’Homme Armé,” the French song that launched countless Renaissance Masses, is heard in the more prominent upper voices, and its comic title aside, Mr. Kilstofte’s piece captures the sound and spirit of 16th-century polyphony beautifully.
Mr. Kilstofte also supplied a more up to date setting of Rilke’s “To Music,” a piece couched in gentle, strikingly beautiful chordal textures, and gracefully led by the choir’s assistant conductor, Geoffrey McDonald. (Ms. Longstreth conducted everything else.)
Morten Lauridsen also had the 16th century on his mind in his “Madrigali: Six ‘Fire Songs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems,” represented here by the rhythmically vital “Ov’è Lass, Il Bel Viso?” And Eric Whitacre was drawn to 20th-century Spain in “With a Lily in Your Hand,” a picturesque setting of Lorca’s “Curva,” in which flowing melodies are accompanied by a flamenco-flavored chord progression, sung to solfège syllables by part of the choir.
The more purely folkloric section of the program, sung mostly by the group’s expert chamber choir, included Mack Wilberg’s lively harmonization of a Scottish folk tune, “O Whistle and I’ll Come to Ye,” and Derek Healey’s dialogue-rich arrangement of “Danse, Mon Moin’, Danse!,” a French-Canadian song.
Chen Yi channeled the Swingle Singers in her bright-hued version of “Shady Grove,” and Kirke Mechem’s mawkish setting of “Let Us Break Bread Together” was redeemed by his more vital recasting of “Love and Pizen: Variations on Springfield Mountain.”
But the freshest of these pieces was the program’s finale, Abbie Betinis’s inventive, richly melodic “Long Time Trav’ling.” Ms. Longstreth led the full choir in a velvety rendering of the work, and if that may not have been what Ms. Betinis had in mind — she said that she was inspired by the rougher, more nasal sound of 19th-century shape-note singing — the performance did justice to the score’s purely musical impulses.