Present Music’s happy ThanksgivingNovember 18th, 2012 |
Camptown Races, Turkey in the Straw, After the Ball…
Old American tunes swirled through the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist Sunday, at Present Music’s annual Thanksgiving concert.
Yankee Doodle, Bringing in the Sheaves, Tarara Boom De-Yay, Oh My Darlin’ Clementine...
They overlapped and ran together in assorted keys.
London Bridge Is Falling Down, Falling Down...
The songs came at you from all directions as the Milwaukee Choral Artists and the kids of the Vocal Arts Academy of Milwaukee moved about the cathedral as they sang.
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, I’m the Sheik of Araby, and you’d look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two...
The big organ piped up with “America” — or, with no words, would it be “God Save the Queen?” — in sombre minor key. A trumpet “Blew the Man Down” from the loft.
The cacophony resonated in the big space and only settled down now and again, for Leslie Fitzwater to sing a line or two from Charles Ives’ “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” with Marty Butorac at the piano.
What could have been the point of all this, beyond the sheer sonic wonder (which would have been enough)? Well, Ives mined all of those old songs — from his father’s youth, for the most part — in creating his own 114 songs, of which “Things Our Fathers Loved” is one. Artist director Kevin Stalheim dreamed up this “Ives Mash Up” to bowl us over, and he did. But I believe he also wanted to put us inside Ives’ musical brain, with its peculiar intensities of nostalgia and audacious modernism. And he did.
No composer is more American than Ives or more appropriate for a celebration of Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays. Before the Mash Up, Stalheim gave us a time-stopping rendition of Ives’ “The Unanswered Question”, with a string quintet in the apse, a wind quintet in the transept and the solo trumpet in the loft. The arrangement activated the great well of air and made us acutely aware of the cathedral’s space.
Pianist Timothy Andres gave us some more intimate Ives, the third movement (“The Alcotts”) of the Concord Sonata, which grew from a distant candle to a Transcendentalist aurora borealis of sound.
Andres, also the day’s composer, took a seat to hear the premiere of his “Comfort Food,” for the MCA (women’s choir), four winds and five strings, with MCA director Sharon Hansen conducting. The text is but a list drawn from responses of friends, family and MCA singers surveyed for things they find comforting. Seventeen of the 27 items on the list are comfort foods, from Nutella to “potatoes of almost any kind” to ramen noodles. The rest range from solitude to “a good chair.”
Andres generally responds as much to the sound of the words as to the sentiment that might attach to a given item. But the music does turn more agitated and insistent on “red-cooked pork belly” and the “rye whiskey,” and “solitude” and “walking” halted the overall forward drive of the piece for sustained solo chant. The music mostly advances in waves of very beautiful chords blended through the voices and instruments. The words glint among them, legible here and there, part and parcel of the warm surf of glowing harmony.
The cathedral, as much as the musicians, played a key role in a program designed for it. Randall Thompson’s “Choose Something Like a Star,” sung by the children’s choir, glittered small and bright in St. John’s vastness. It pulsed along with the great drum during the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group’s stirring opening and closing songs. “Jerusalem,” the medieval Irish hymn in Michael McGlynn’s arrangement, rang in its barrel vault as the Milwaukee Choral Artists sang it as they advanced up the central aisle. And it blended all the voices in the place, including ours, as we sang together “America the Beautiful.”