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Review: Mass Transmission | Verdigris Ensemble | Royal Lane Baptist Church

Making Waves

Verdigris Ensemble again proves itself invaluable with its latest concert of works by Nicholas Reeves, Mason Bates, and Howard Skempton.

published Sunday, February 10, 2019

Nicholas Reeves
Photo: Ryan Schude
Mason Bates


Dallas — In the two years since its conception, Verdigris Ensemble has done well to distinguish itself as one of the most unique choral groups in Dallas-Fort Worth. Led by artistic director Sam Brukhman, their conscientious approach toward new and challenging compositions brands their product with an edge that is positively inimitable, as is displayed in their latest program entitled Mass Transmission. Saturday night’s concert, held at Royal Lane Baptist Church, was a glowing testament to this group’s central mission of bringing innovative artistry to DFW’s choral community. There is a final performance tonight at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.

The program consists of three works, tied together by the themes of distance and human communication. Moreover, though, the pieces come together effectively to serve as a sobering commentary on how we all strive to be heard in a world that seems to be getting more and more crowded with noise—how interpersonal communication is a desperate facet of the human condition and the ways we succeed and fail in that endeavor.

For example, one work included in this set is Betty’s Notebook, a new work for chorus and recorded sounds by DJ and composer Nicholas Reeves. In this world premiere, the group pieces together fragments of a recorded interview with Betty Klenck, a woman who, in her teens, unwittingly happened upon radio transmissions that turned out to be the final distress calls of Amelia Earhart. Despite her greatest efforts, it would be years before anyone would give proper credence to Klenk’s discoveries.

Utilizing text taken directly from Klenck’s notebook, in which she frenetically jotted down the snippets of messages she received in her living room, the work offers a chilling look into the tantalizing mystery of Earhart’s disappearance. What’s more, Reeves delivers an informative lecture on the piece before its performance, providing context and insight that brings its starkly humanistic character further into clarity.

It’s a harrowing combination in use here—images of pages from Klenk’s notebook projected onto a screen and thick choral dissonances from which phrases like, “Let me out!” and “Help, I need air!” float and hang in the rafters. Brukhman’s careful conducting pairs these moments with the staticky recordings of Klenk’s voice, now in old age, as she recalls the experience.

The program also includes Mason Bates’ Mass Transmission (2012), a three-part composition that examines a long-range radio conversation between a mother and daughter from back when such a capability was still thought of as a modern miracle. The work brings together virtuosic organ, electronic sound-scaping, and wide, shimmery resonance from the choir to set the dialogue and narration.

So often throughout the piece, the 16-member ensemble bursts into a cacophony of dissonant havoc only to regroup smoothly into rich, satisfying harmonies. Ardent tuning and careful timing allow this group to move efficiently through these varied textures and coordinate with the pressing electronic beats. As the narrative is set between Holland and Java, the electronic recordings evoke dance-like tropical rhythms, shaded by eerie swoops of static and piercing sine waves.

Cleverly opening the set is Howard Skempton’s “The Flight of Song,” a musical setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Arrow and the Song.” It starts with a chaotic cacophony of spoken text that quickly blends into straightforward harmonies, which the ensemble executes beautifully. It is an apt introduction to a stimulating and challenging collection of music.

The Verdigris Ensemble presents a thought-provoking and, admittedly, unsettling program with Mass Transmission. It is an evening intense in both music and narrative, constructed with evident purpose and care—all the way down to the attire, which came together to suggest a loose interpretation of the 1930s. Given the poignant imagery, the useful context, and the masterful level of overall musicianship, this group proves that it is among the most creative and effective storytellers in North Texas. Thanks For Reading

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Making Waves
Verdigris Ensemble again proves itself invaluable with its latest concert of works by Nicholas Reeves, Mason Bates, and Howard Skempton.
by Richard Oliver

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