New Music from a Lofty Perspective

Sometimes an unusual venue provides an added level of communication to a concert. From the eighth floor Helen Price Reading Room of the San Diego Central Library, the choral music of Folklore Guild and the instrumental third stream of Swarmius floated above the city in a world of their own.

The library’s high-ceilinged room with its neo-space craft architecture and expansive view of the city and

Angel Mannion in Folklore garb [photo courtesy of Folklore]

Angel Mannion in Folklore garb [photo courtesy of Folklore]

bay below suggest a setting for a science fiction film or video game, symbols dear to the heart of Folklore and its Artistic Director Angel Mannion. One of the region’s newest choral groups, Folklore boasts a youthful membership as well as a young, fresh, homogenous sound.

Works on the program that directly referenced popular culture included Trevor Morris’ “The Dawn Will Come” from the video game Dragon Age: Inquisition and Ramin Djawadi’s main theme from the television show “Game of Thrones.”

“The Dawn Will Come,” a somber, secular chorale, marched solemnly over low-pitched, dense organ chords played on a synthesizer. Only slightly more active, the “Game of Thrones” theme music sounded like a litany of dark pleas, for which the voices of Folklore provided sufficient dramatic urgency to make a compelling case.

To its credit, Folklore premiered three recent choral works, “Death” by Chris Fulford-Brown, and Jon Kull’s “Spring and Fall” and “Pied Beauty.” Only a very confident programmer—or a naïve one—would open a concert with a work titled “Death.” Not surprisingly, the stately chords of “Death” moved at a glacial pace, supported by the melancholic drone of cello and eerie sustained tones bowed from the vibraphone.

Cast in an equally dour mode and slow measure, Kull’s settings of two Gerald Manley Hopkins poems continued where “Death” left off, a notion that would have appealed to the Jesuit poet. The compact, devotional anthem “Pied Beauty” benefitted from Folklore’s sweet, earnest choral blend, but “Spring and Fall” plodded dutifully, tied to a much longer text. Kull’s bland chordal declamatory style resurrected that 1950s Randall Thompson choral mode that has gone the way of the hula hoop and poodle skirts.

Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep,” one of the contemporary choral composer’s hits, at least brought a more complex harmonic vocabulary to yet another slow anthem. Coincidentally, Whitacre’s “Sleep” was originally set to a Robert Frost poem that Thompson set—and made a lot of money on—in his once ubiquitously popular Frostiana. Unfortunately, Whitacre had failed to acquire legal permission to use the Frost poem, and he was forced to withdraw it. A close friend concocted the new text “Sleep” to fit precisely the contours of the Frost poem, and although the opening of “Sleep” struck me as generic Whitacre water treading, his climax of women’s voices bursting in high-pitched clusters proved quite moving.

Folklore included two works from traditional choral repertory, Robert Pearsall’s “Lay a Garland,” a Victorian-era valentine to Renaissance madrigals, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangement for men’s voices of a British folksong “Bushes and Briars,” which showcased the brawny, well-modulated sonority of Folklore’s male contingent.

Kudos to guest conductor Denna K. Gautereaux for coaxing such a unified timbre from the men and cleanly shaping their phrases. Another guest conductor, Juan Carlos Acosta, drew a refined, ardent response from the singers in Pearsall’s work.

Swarmius ensemble with Jospeh Martin Waters forwground [photo (c) Amy Hecht]

Swarmius ensemble with Jospeh Martin Waters foreground [photo (c) Amy Hecht]

Joseph Martin Waters’ band Swarmius proved the perfect antidote to Folklore’s endless adagios. Reprising his antic virtuoso romp “Dragon,” Waters’ filled the room with pulsing iterations that fused jazz and techno in a salubrious concoction. I missed the dueling melodicas from the original 2011 version of “Dragon,” but adding soprano sax Michael Couper to complement the extravagant effusions of alto sax magician Todd Rewoldt proved more than adequate compensation.

Emma Depuy’s vocal prowess and heightened sense of dramatic urgency propelled Waters’ “M8untain in the Mist” to crown this evening of music in the air with a compelling monodrama. Although the room’s resonant acoustic and roaring instrumental accompaniment muddied her text, her emotional communication was unhindered. I am not certain that adding a choral component to the work for Folklore significantly strengthened my impression from Swarmius’ performance of “M8untain in the Mist” two months ago without choir.

But it made an appropriate grand finale for this concert.

Folklore & Swarmius program

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