A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 2, 2014
10:51 AMClassically Speaking
Isthmus Vocal Ensemble Maintains the Highest Standards While Leading Us Through “Labyrinth: The Path Hidden”
In its thirteenth annual incarnation Friday night, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble showed its enduring drawing power, and then proceeded to display, in multiple styles, the glories of choral singing that remain unsurpassed in Madison.
Early evening thunderstorms, with a smattering of light hail in some areas, were no deterrent for a capacity audience at Christ Presbyterian Church. It was clear that nearly all of them were regulars eager for what lay ahead: The applause began as the choir first made their way up the side aisles, and did not abate until director Scott MacPherson was in place.
The program was built largely around works—from the Renaissance to contemporary—expressing aspects of loss, with much of the texts sacred. But the evening began with an affirmation; Latvian-Canadian composer Imant Raminsh (b. 1943) set the 17th-century text of St. Dimitri “Come, My Light.” The rich harmonies immediately gave the IVE ample opportunities to display their trademark characteristics of transparency and blend in each section. A short but exquisite “Hear My Prayer” of Purcell added luster to the proceedings.
MacPherson shared a few words about “Mille regretz,” as he paired, almost without pause, a setting by the Renaissance master Josquin des Prez with the contemporary Andrew Rindfleisch. One of the IVE’s two CDs are devoted to the latter’s works, and it was easy to hear why. Following the haunting Josquin setting, Rindlfeisch’s was an inexorably swirling sense of rue, above a “bottomless” foundation from the basses. The text refers to the “thousand regrets” over an abandoned love, and Rindfleisch closes with the tenors numbingly intoning the “days will soon dwindle away.” In attendance, the composer received powerful acknowledgment from the audience.
The first half concluded with a minor masterpiece that filled the church with major intensity, the Brahms motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Muhseligen?” (“Why is light granted to those in misery”). Based on three Bible texts and a chorale verse from Martin Luther, two questions arose as the reading unfolded. How did Brahms—all but an atheist according to close friends such as Dvorak—write such music as this? The performance itself raised another: how does a group of about sixty singers come together for scarcely two weeks of rehearsal and produce interpretations of such compelling mastery? The answer to the second lies in a collective passion focused with laser-like intensity by MacPherson.
The programming of the Brahms gave occasion to a rare pitch from tenor (and IVE Board president) Steve Brick, and then MacPherson. Looking ahead two years, to the IVE’s fifteenth “season,” MacPherson hopes to raise enough money to present Brahms’ A German Requiem, which requires full orchestra as well as the chorus. It is a possibility to be devoutly hoped for.
The second half opened with three rarities of Bruckner, Rachmaninoff and Gretchaninoff; while the basses were inevitably the stars in the middle selection, a solo by soprano Chelsie Propst was like starlight shining above their deep firmament.
The only selection of the night that was not a cappella was the riotous romp of Lionel Daunais, “Figures de Danse.” Based on six short poems that hilariously describe an array of disasters among dancers and trapeze artists (some fatal!), the audience had no trouble laughing in all the right places. The humor is woven into the music itself, but the generous program included translations of all the works not sung in English (and superb program notes from MacPherson). Jane Peckham provided jaunty accompaniment at the piano.
The evening ended with a pair of spirituals arranged by Moses Hogan. Mezzo soprano Kathleen Otterson had her expressive solo turn accompanied by a wordless chorusin “There’s a Man Goin’ Round”, and then all had a chance to display the rhythmic intricacies and dynamic swings of “Elijah Rock.”
Find me guilty of hyperbole, but I can’t think of a better way to say it: the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is like a rare rose that blooms but once a year…the good news is that it shares its hypnotic fragrance for forty-eight hours. You can hear this program yourself Sunday, August 3 at 3 p.m. at the Covenant Presbyterian Church at 320 South Segoe Road. Tickets are $10 and available at the door—but I’d get there a little bit early!