May 24, 2013
New Tunes, Old Friends and Poems Set to Song
New Amsterdam Singers at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
The New York Times
Among ensembles that champion new music, many trumpet the wide diversity of the composers they perform. Yet there is much to be said for a group that builds long-term associations with favored composers.
This has been a defining attribute of the New Amsterdam Singers, a skilled 70-voice choir, which ended its 45th season with a concert on Thursday night at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side, conducted by its music director, Clara Longstreth.
The chorus boasts an impressive list of premieres and commissions. But some of the same names keep coming up. What could be more natural?
Two of those regulars were performed on this program, titled “Premiere! American Poetry Settings.” One was Ronald Perera, who was on hand for the New York premiere of “The Star in the Pail,” six songs set to whimsical poems by David McCord. Though the texts are pretty light, Mr. Perera’s pleasure in the fanciful words comes through in his appealing, quirky music, which the choristers sang with rich sound and liveliness.
Mr. Perera spoke to the audience about his 20-year association with Ms. Longstreth and the chorus, which has resulted in six major works. This is “no longer a trial marriage,” he said.
Another regular, Matthew Harris, had two works on Thursday’s program. I especially liked “Three Plums,” harmonically pungent settings of poems by William Carlos Williams. The chorus also offered Mr. Harris’s undulant, fresh and sometimes fractured “Fantasy on La Bamba.”
Ms. Longstreth is known for her imaginative programs, and this one included strong performances of works by William Schuman and Richard Rodney Bennett, presented by the ensemble’s smaller chamber chorus. On this night, notably, there were also two young composers who are newcomers to the Singers.
Alex Weiser, a New Yorker who studied at Yale University, was drawn to “Travelers,” an enigmatic poem by a friend, Laura Marris, for an a cappella work of the same title, first performed at Yale in 2011. Mr. Weiser captured both the specific and elusive qualities of the poetic imagery in his compelling music, which sometimes breaks down a phrase and repeats the words, as if to get at the meaning. The urgent performance was led by Max Blum, the chorus’s excellent assistant conductor.
Elizabeth Lim, currently a doctoral candidate at the Juilliard School, spoke of why she was drawn to Willa Cather’s poem “Paradox,” which is a reimagined take on the characters of Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” At times Ms. Lim’s music, which is full of crunchy chords and eerily sustained vocal lines, makes a mysterious jumble of the words through fitful, overlapping phrases. A highly charged piano part, played vividly by Pen Ying Fang, brings dramatic sweep to the piece.
It seems likely that Ms. Lim and Mr. Weiser may be added to the roster of composers the choir champions.