Music Review: Vermont music shines with CounterpointBy Jim Lowe
MANCHESTER — Contemporary music means many things to many people, but it is unlikely that for most it conjures up the broad palette of beautiful sounds heard at Counterpoint’s Sunday concert at the First Congregational Church.
“There Always Something Sings: New Choral Music by Vermont Composers,” which was also performed by the state’s 11-voice professional vocal ensemble at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier Saturday evening and in Colchester Friday, offered three premieres by three of the state’s best composers, as well as three previously performed works by three other fine local composers.
The one premiere commissioned by Counterpoint was Jorge Martín’s “Music,” a ravishingly beautiful setting of a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem. The Cuban-born Addison composer achieved an amazingly beautiful sound despite using rather complex harmonic language to reflect the text. He did this by focusing on the lyricism as well as a consciousness of vocal blending.
Like the poem, Martín offered an outward layer of traditional lyrical beauty while the inner machinations — including clashing harmonies and rhythms — reflected a deeper truth. He also built and varied the flavor, bringing drama to the work, coming to a climactic finale. But it always sounded beautiful.
It is most difficult to judge an ensemble entirely by its performance of unknown works but Counterpoint, led by Nathaniel Lew, its artistic director, certainly delivered a compelling and rewarding concert. Attention was given to precision and vocal quality, and these fine singers delivered ably and with passion.
Unexpected rhythms created the lively flavor of “Carving of the Circle: 12 Zodiac Choruses,” a setting of the F.D. Reeve poem by former University of Vermont music professor Thomas “Larry” Read. Each of the signs of the zodiac is given a short chorus, with Aries getting a reprise.
More tonal than Read’s often dense instrumental works, “Carving the Circle” employs a broad variety of styles — the somewhat staccato Aries, the unusual of the mix of opera and clipped rhythms in Taurus’ soprano-alto duet, the traditional chorus of Cancer, the contrapuntal Virgo, the Libra chorale, the striking harmonies of the haunting Aquarius, and the unexpected rhythm and lyrical play of the closing second Aires.
All this variety within makes this music difficult to perform, but Counterpoint made this musical kaleidoscope sound natural and beautiful.
Northfield’s Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, who teaches at Johnson State College, and another composer known for his thorny music, surprised with the premiere of his ethereally beautiful “O: 11 Choruses,” of which seven were performed. Here again, a wide variety of styles was employed in these settings of poems by Gary Barwin.
Like the Martín, interior machinations — often very complex — flowed under the music’s seemingly tonal flow. “The Birds” was hauntingly lyrical; quietly clashing harmonies made “Sparrow’s Song” haunting; a sustained bass by the men with lyricism from the women above made “Fish” “swim”; and the music of the text created the final chorale of “Regret.”
Jazz rhythms and harmonies marked “Large Crow” from University of Vermont music professor Patricia Julien’s 2004 “Three Songs at Winter’s End.” Her setting of Bennington composer April Bernard’s poem was most attractive, jazzy and effervescent.
“Nature Revised” was a 2006 collaboration between two Middlebury College faculty members. Composer Peter Hamlin used Jay Parini’s poetry to create virtual sound paintings evoking not only nature in Vermont but people’s reactions to it. The graphic, colorful and often humorous poetry came to life in Hamlin’s complex but graphic settings.
Another UVM music professor, David Feurzeig, was represented by “The True Lover’s Farewell II” from his 2006 “Songs of Love and Protest.” Although the work is filled with thorny contemporary harmonic language, the effect is tender neo-Renaissance.
Counterpoint not only performed expertly, a tribute not only to Lew but also to founder Robert De Cormier, it introduced new listeners to some of Vermont’s finest composers. Concerts like this, made up entirely of new and unfamiliar music, can tax attention spans, limiting the focus on final works. (That’s why traditional classical programs often are a mix of unfamiliar and reassuring.)
That said, Counterpoint, under Lew in his second year as director, has again proved itself a vocal ensemble on a par with top instrumental ensembles — what a joy.
For news about upcoming concerts by Counterpoint, Vermont’s professional vocal ensemble, go online to www.counterpointchorus.org.
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