Marcy Richardson, soprano
Dara Kirchofner Scholz, soprano
Lori Lewis, soprano
Susan Sacquitne Druck, mezzo-soprano
Lisa Drew, contralto
World Voices, Karle Erickson, director
VocalEssence Chorus with orchestra
Sigrid Johnson, associate conductor
Philip Brunelle, artistic director and conductor
In 1994, noted Swedish composer
Sven-David Sandström surprised many of his colleagues by writing
a Catholic mass, using Bachís B-Minor as a jumping-off point, and then
further shocked listeners by abandoning some of the more "difficult"
(his word, not mine) tonalities found in some of his earlier music,
and serving this text in an unusually striking, eclectic style. Although
the work was performed in Europe shortly after it was completed (and
there is an excellent recording on Caprice), this was its first professional
performance in the United States, following its debut by forces at Indiana
University in the fall of 2002.
This piece is a monumental boulder,
with a raw and piercing quality that lingered with me for days afterward.
The forces are almost as large as those required for a Mahler score:
an enormous chorus, five vocal soloists (three sopranos and two altos),
all welded together by a huge orchestra with additional percussion,
including four sets of chimes. From where I was sitting in the back
of the first tier, the workís intense vocal demands made an almost physical
During a pre-concert talk, Sandström
remarked, only half-jokingly, that the word "high" in the
title also refers to the vocal range. My guess is that no one onstage
would disagree. Few compositions involving the human voice are as taxing
to sing. Every part is often just a hairbreadth away from screaming.
Afterward, some singers confided that they really had no idea how effective
the piece was, because they were so immersed in monitoring how their
voices were holding up. (Not to encourage shredded vocal chords, but
those onstage should be publicly thanked for enduring a bit of minor
vocal abuse, allowing us the chance to experience this intense and remarkable
Opening with violent, slashing
chords in the orchestra, the piece then tears omnivorously through all
sorts of sonic territory -- now fierce, now humane, and never dull.
Sandströmís language mixes Ligeti-esque tone clusters, subtle use
of spoken syllables, moments of Mahlerian tonal sweep, and occasional
elements of jazz, in twenty-five well-etched sections whose cumulative
power I could not have anticipated.
There are too many provocative
moments to list them all, but several stand out. In a short sequence
during "Qui sedes ad dextram patris," the five soloists take
flight, as if as one, rising quickly to a clustered chord of precipitous
high notes, then fall back down as quickly as they ascended. It takes
all of five seconds, but thatís all the time needed to take your breath
away. Much later, the ominous "Crucifixus" section uses a
lurching funeral march, with relentless hammering from the orchestra,
intended to depict the nails being driven through Christís hands --
overÖand overÖand over. Slowly the barbarism subsides, and by the end
when the chorus finds a new plateau with a message of peace, the music
and vocal pyrotechnics have evaporated and been replaced with an otherworldly
Philip Brunelle, long a champion
of new and recent music, should be commended for programming and conducting
this challenging work that often seems to revel in its juxtaposition
of shrill "maximalism" with an almost childlike minimalism.
The superb VocalEssence ensemble, combined with World Voices (both Minneapolis-based
choral groups) for a total of 150 singers strong (and I do mean "strong"
since this piece requires something like athletic ability), and sometimes
strained to produce the sounds for which Sandström asks. (This
"trying" to hit the notes may be part of the texture he wants.)
But given the task, they succeeded beautifully, faced with constantly
shifting styles and meters, not to mention the tortured range of high
The enormous orchestra of excellent
free-lancers (complete with an augmented percussion section, including
all those chimes), sounded more coherent than some groups with players
who have worked with each other far more often -- even if their parts
were considerably less demanding than the shockingly high choral passages.
The five soloists were uniformly outstanding, making a glowing, ethereal
ensemble, despite each being handed a unique slate of treacherous vocal
parts. No one got off easy in this one.
A piece on this scale carries
innumerable risks, not the least of which is whether an audience can
summon up the patience for what is, in some sections, something of an
aural assault. Although the composerís unusually extended language may
have caught some listeners off guard, causing them to abandon ship at
intermission -- a shame -- most seemed riveted by the musicís unusual
style, coupled with genuine emotion.
At intermission, a friend of one
of the singers asked me, somewhat hesitantly, how I was enjoying the
evening so far, and I replied that this might possibly be one of the
greatest choral works of the last twenty years or so. Time will give
it more perspective. It is hard to say whether the forces needed, much
less the stamina, will ensure regular performances, but for sheer audacity,
there are few pieces like it. It is an astonishing, slightly mad, and
yet -- make no mistake -- ultimately a deeply reverent work.