Monday, August 16, 2010

A Tale of Two Concerts

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of California Bach Society. I've been attending their concerts for some years now, starting when Warren Stewart was their director. Warren was (and still is, with Magnificat) a brilliant programmer. Paul Flight, who is in his third season, puts together great programs and has led Cal Bach to an even higher vocal standard than the chorus had previously reached. (Full disclosure: I have sung with Paul most seasons since 2005, in several choruses.) Cal Bach sings very much with one voice, a pure, blended, and balanced voice. The chorus's sound is focused, clean, and clear, almost always perfectly in tune; it's the most consistently gorgeous tone I've heard from a non-professional chorus.

This approach works beautifully in most of the music Cal Bach sings, especially in the sacred music that makes up two-thirds or three-quarters of their programming. This past season, in a program of selections from Monteverdi's madrigals, it was less than perfectly successful. As usual, the sound was exceptionally lovely, transparent and vibratoless; as usual there was good unanimity of attack and dynamics, though it must be said that in this context, some fumbled attacks at the start of a few madrigals really stood out.

But I have to question the whole enterprise of singing madrigals, an intimate form, with a 30-voice choir in which individuality has, of necessity, to be suppressed. Monteverdi's madrigals set passionate and sometimes heart-rending texts, such as the series written when the composer was grief-stricken over his wife's death. As much as I admired the beautiful tone, I would have preferred more individuality, more spontaneity, and more guts in the singing, less the sense of a uniform group singing in carefully-rehearsed unanimity.

The second half of the program brought some of this individuality, with the appearance of tenor Brian Thorsett and a couple of the choristers for some solos and duets and a concluding work with the chorus. The emotional temperature of the performance went up noticably, and I, for one, would have liked the whole program to be hotter and more passionate.

Around the same time, I saw San Francisco Renaissance Voice in a program called
"Songs of Love and War." (Full disclosure again: I sang with SFRV for one program in 2007.) This was an immense and ambitious program, about two hours of music that included motets, madrigals, character pieces, and a mass by Victoria.

Now, Cal Bach is an auditioned amateur chorus; SFRV is a chorus of pros and semi-pros. SFRV singers have bigger, fuller, more soloistic voices than Cal Bach singers. The SFRV sound is less pure than Cal Bach's; you can pick out individual voices and everything is generally more full-throated and sometimes rougher around the edges. I rather liked this; I found it appropriate to the theme of their concert and liked the greater thrust of the sound. It's probably closer than the Cal Bach sound to how secular works written for performance in the home would have sounded.

This is obviously a matter of taste and not everyone will share my particular taste. I confess, as well, that my particular taste in madrigal singing has been influenced by the number of them I've sung myself and also by an LP of Gesualdo madrigals I bought in the distant past. The very young Marilyn Horne is one of the singers, to give you an idea.

I seriously question whether the pure and ethereal choral sound is the right one for all early music. I know I'm not the first person to wonder about this. Greg Sandow and Robert Philip have both written about it, and in fact there's a book called The Sound of Medieval Song that discusses the this issue, starting by quoting all known sources that describe what medieval singers sounded like. (I'd own a copy if it weren't an insanely expensive OUP book. Can you believe $185, or a mere $99 if purchased from Amazon?)

I am not expecting Cal Bach to turn around and start incorporating a less unified sound into some of their concerts, especially since they sing predominantly sacred music. But it would be an interesting musical stretch for the group if they did!

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