Tom Strini
Present Music’s Thanksgiving

I’m grateful

By - Nov 21st, 2010 09:30 pm

The Bucks open Present Music’s Thanksgiving concert Sunday. TCD photo by Robert Bundy.

Sunday afternoon, Present Music’s Thanksgiving concert began and ended as it always has, with stirring songs from the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group. Three  generations — maybe four — gathered around a big bass drum and patted, pounded, sang and wailed in a language and musical idiom mysterious and thrilling.

The program moved without pause to Thomas Larcher’s String Quartet #3/Madhares. A barely discernible scratching with a coin on a violin string made an eerie tremolando to open the piece. It advanced in free-floating episodes ranging from mad, atonal scrambles to placidly harmonized dirges before the coin-scraping returned to close it.

The Milwaukee Children’s Choir, led by Carol Storck, joined the string quartet in Srul Irving Glick’s Psalm 92. The children’s utterly sweet and impressively disciplined sound matched Glick’s easy 3/4 lilt and pastel harmonies. Later in the program, Storck and children tripped lightly through Glick’s equally charming but more complex Psalm 47, with its beguiling rhythmic play of three against four.

Next, Sharon Hanesen’s Milwaukee Choral Artists formed a circle around the central altar to sing John Tavener’s lulling, repetitive, a cappella The Lord’s Prayer. This superb small choir seemed to expend no effort at all in this, as if they merely released the sound like so many doves to glide about the high, vaulted ceiling of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. In the second half, supplemented by the string quartet, they showed a different side of themselves and of Tavener. The eight-minute Come and Do Your Will with Me contrasts Medieval-sounding perfect intervals with sharp dissonances, as the vibe alternates between monkish and earthy. Hansen has spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, and the forceful nasality of women’s folk choirs of that region found its way into this performance, to hair-raising effect.

Kevin Stalheim conducts Present Music’s strings in John Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” TCD photo by Robert Bundy.

Kevin Stalheim, Present Music’s artistic director, led a small string orchestra in an intense reading of John Adams’ Shaker Loops (1978). This bracing music rushes at you in roiling torrents in the first and fourth movements. In the second and third, it flows in glassy, calm harmonics. The interest, beyond the considerable sonic excitement of it all, lies in hearing little motifs pile up and overlap in endless variety and then congeal and distill to just a few driving notes.

Karen Beaumont, as always at Thanksgiving, cranked up the cathedral’s powerful organ, this time for Jeanne Demessieux’s outrageous Repons pour le Temps de Paques. This essentially tonal “wrong-note” piece that lands on one raucous “mistake” after then next, to riotous effect. Rhythms and meters tend toward the grotesque, as well, with asymmetries that bump along like unbalanced tires. Fun.

Soon it was time for the annual Friendship Dance, with the Bucks drumming and dancers joining hands and making their circuit of the perimeter of the cathedral.

You’d think that the sharp contrast in styles and idioms would have daunted a holiday audience. But no; everyone seemed happy and engaged, and intense applause broke out at the end. Stalheim, over the years, has built a large, curious, tolerant audience that engages with the future of music. When you break the wishbone Thursday, wish for an America more like Present Music’s audience.

0 thoughts on “Present Music’s Thanksgiving: I’m grateful”

  1. Anonymous says:

    St. John’s Cathedral offers ideal ambience for a thanksgiving celebration. Kevin Stalheim has also learn how to exploit the acoustics of this unique space. The Bucks large ceremonial drum reverberates in tune with the hall. Placing the Milwaukee Choral Artists at the altar near the center of the room enhanced the tender balance of Tavener’s Lords Prayer. The Demessieux organ composition filled the hall and sounded improvised on the spot. John Adam’s Shaker Loops seemed designed for the space.

    I was most impressed by Shaker Loops. The small string ensemble created a clarity of sound not heard when entire orchestra string sections interpret the work. Stalheim conducted the piece with an energy that ensured the serial framework a forward momentum. The “shaking” strings echoing in the hall created the convergence of sounds Adam’s appears to have sought.

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