Dallas — When attending an event by a new performing arts organization, you never know what to expect. But whatever I was thinking would happen had to rapidly change when I attended the concert presented by Verdigris, a chamber choir made up of 16 excellent singers. The centerpiece of the program, The Consolation of Apollo, was written by composer Kile Smith and is based on texts from the Apollo 8 space mission. Music Director Sam Brukhman prefaced this work with some related selections.
It was a terrific concert and I fully intend to return to the next performance at 4:30 p.m. April 14, which will be held in a fitting venue, the Planetarium at the University of Texas at Arlington. There will also be excerpts of the performance on April 27 at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, in its Social Science event.
Part of why I intend to return is that, while I heard the concert, I was not actually in the Royal Lane Baptist Church’s sanctuary for the March 4 performance.
I mistakenly went to another location where the concert had been presented two days earlier. I was able to get to the right location in time to hear the first selection, but I was seated in a room off of the choir loft so as not to disturb the performance. I intended to run to the front of the church at the first break, but to my chagrin, there wasn’t a break until the very end. One selection merged into another. Thus, I missed all of the creative staging that Verdigris reportedly used to enhance the concert. Alas, this was one concert that needed to be experienced and not just heard.
A qualifier: What staging I mention here was reported to me by a number of trusted sources. Check back after the April 14 concert to get my first hand impression.
Brukhman’s programming aimed at enclosing the audience in a sound bubble that would give some impression of being in outer space. He did this by programming works that used similar harmonic structures and forms. He joined each selection to the previous one without a break.
The concert started with the singers in the back of the sanctuary and a single soloist singing the traditional hymn, “Bright Morning Stars.” It was sung without vibrato to give it a folk music feel.
That was followed by two works by Meredith Monk. The first was her “Earth Seen From Above.” In this piece, the choir processed but did so in a random manner holding lights to create the feeling that the audience was in the stars.
They moved to the front of the sanctuary to sing Monk’s “Panda Chant,” which comes from her science fiction opera, The Games. It is primal in nature and requires rhythmic stomping. This was followed by three selections from Urmas Sisask’s Gloria Patri, a cycle of 24 movements.
The main selection, The Consolation of Apollo, continued without a pause but was introduced by a huge bang on the bass drum — representing the blast off of the Apollo 8 mission. This work used some actual conversations between the astronauts as text, recorded on Christmas Eve in 1968, including a reading from Genesis in the King James version of the Bible. There are other mystical texts chosen to surround the conversation. The bass drum made some other, less dramatic, appearances, as did a set of crotales (sometimes referred to as antique cymbals). They added a high pitch ring, much like a tuned triangle.
The program ended with another version of “Bright Morning Stars, which brought us back full circle. This time, the entire choir joined in in an improvised version.
All of this music was similar, which is why the nonstop presentation worked so beautifully. It was basically tonal, but an altered tonality rather than the standard use of major and minor. Parts of the selections used bitonality techniques (being in two keys at the same time), modal harmonies (used in the Middle Ages) and the Renaissance technique of creating harmonies by the chance lining up of independent lines. None of this was off-putting to anyone who only has an ear for traditional harmonies, but the piquant musical language was certainly another, equally valid, take on tonality.
Since the choir performed a cappella, the harmonic language presented the singers with an almost transcendental difficulty of finding pitches. Although I didn’t have scores to follow, they had little trouble locating pitch. Their intonation was near perfect and they didn’t go flat as the evening went on, as so often happens when singing without accompaniment.
The sound was rich and vacant at the same time, much like the blazing glory of the stars in space surrounded by a complete vacuum.
Musically, this concert was superb. My seat had the best sound in the church. But I missed the entire effect. This is why I will review this concert again when it is presented on April 14 at the UTA Planetarium.