A fitting, coherent Thanksgiving concert
Nave and transepts, crossing and loft, apse and aisle — musicians, well over 100 of them, were everywhere in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist Sunday afternoon. Where musicians weren’t, the audience was. Present Music’s Thanksgiving concert has become a must-hear opening event of the musical holiday season, and the cathedral was sold out.
Artistic director and founder Kevin Stalheim put together his most coherent and apt program yet for this environment. He chose music that would not only play in the vast, live space, but play the space itself.
The late Henry Brant wrote Wind, Water, Clouds & Fire for this group and this space in 2004, and Stalheim was right to revive it. This grand, fantastical thing comes at you from all directions with an utterly disorienting array of sounds and styles. Every note in it is above middle C; the overall impression is of a heavenly, celebratory jangle of women’s and children’s voices mixed with metal percussion and piercing high winds.
But so much happens: A bluesy trumpet drops in now and then, plays a few riffs and disappears. The organ at one end of the church and and a grand piano at the other trade outrageous runs of clusters, executed with fists or elbows. Such goings-on rudely interrupt dreamy chorales or dances that lilt along in shifting meters in the cherubic voices of children. Being in the cathedral Sunday was like living in Brant’s head as he dreamed up one wild sound after another.
I can’t say that it exactly made sense, in the end, though things sort of recur to tie it together. Wind, Water, Clouds & Fire doesn’t tell a story or make an abstract argument, in the way a Beethoven symphony does. The rarely discernible words are translated Leonardo da Vinci observations about the natural world. I can see why such mundane, haiku-like lines as “Water moves in the same way as the wind” or “Fire begins and ends in smoke” appealed to Brant’s sensibility. He means to take you off-line, to disorient you. His score includes a map that tells every player exactly where to be in St. John’s. They need to know exactly where to be in order to make you get lost in his sonic dream.
Stalheim cued his scattered forces from a step ladder in the center of the church. Several sub-conductors saw to the various choirs and instrumental groups. This piece is not easy to coordinate. Stalheim, the Present Music Ensemble, the Vocal Arts Academy of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Choral Artists, MYSO, the Pius XI High School Advanced Treble Choir, the Arrowhead High School Choir and the Homestead High School Treble Choir made it sound seamless and certain. They cast a spell from the first tone, and that spell held until the last sound finally stopped echoing in the high vault.
Two more pieces that were part of the above group merit separate consideration. Stalheim combined Byzantine and Gregorian chants and arranged them into canons for Chanting Rounds 1 and 2. The girls and women sang them unaccompanied. Stalheim couched these simplest chants in the simplest of devices, the round — like Row Your Boat. But as the lines accumulated and reverberation sustained them, an ecstatic harmonic agitation occurred. Sound always sets air to vibrating, but something about this sound made the air, the very space, tingle with life.