Works By Lang, Pärt Compass The Circle Of Existence

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Theatre of Voices and the Yale Voxtet performed David Lang’s ‘the writings’ at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall under Paul Hillier. (Photos by Stephanie Berger)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – What has happened before will happen again. That seemed to be the message underlying Theatre of Voices’ concert at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on March 20, when the ensemble presented two works about the circle of existence, including a world premiere by David Lang.

Paul Hillier conducted Theatre of Voices and the Yale Voxtet in Zankel Hall.

Directed by early-music specialist Paul Hillier,  Theatre of Voices has a long history of championing new music by composers inspired by medieval and Renaissance polyphony. While the work on the first half of the program, Songs from the Soil, was billed as a New York premiere, it involved music by Arvo Pärt with which Hillier and company have a long history. The new element was the film by Danish director Phie Ambo that ran during the five pieces.

Ambo’s Songs from the Soil is described in the program notes as a “visual poem” and “celebration of biodiversity.” In it, exquisite videography shows the details of life in all its forms existing on a farm in Denmark (shot while Ambo made her 2014 documentary Good Things Await). Calves are born, insects multiply, spider webs collect dewdrops, and logs sprout fungi. There is no narrative beyond the general idea that life breeds life.

Because there is no sound on the film, one might expect the role of Theatre of Voices plus their longtime organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent to be that of the silent-film accompanists of long ago, intensifying the emotional impact of each on-screen situation. Not so here. “This is not music edited for a film,” explained the program notes, “but rather reflects the co-existence and interdependence of two artistic strands.” Well, maybe.

Pianist-organist Christopher Bowes-Broadbent with members of Theatre of Voices

I can’t honestly report that watching color-rich nature imagery enhanced my experience of listening to Pärt’s music, or vice versa, when the two elements were not specifically designed to work together. But soprano Else Torp’s opening solo, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (2000), on a text by Robert Burns, set the tone for the entire evening: life and music as incremental growth, the reward for which is beauty. Each verse repeated a single pitch, at a third or fourth above that of the previous verse.

Less rewarding was the second piece, a wordless vocalise for four voices called “Sarah Was Ninety Years Old” (1976, revised 1990), inspired by the story of Sarah’s late-in-life birth to Isaac from the Book of Genesis. Mezzo-soprano Iris Oja’s throat and jaw seemed tense, affecting her pitch stability in the Part 1 duo with Torp. “Cantate Domino canticum novum” (1977, rev. 1996), showed the ensemble at its finest, the irregular, word-driven rhythms requiring the same skills needed for a Marenzio or Lassus madrigal.

The centerpiece of this film score (if that’s the right term) is “I Am the True Vine” (1996), which Hillier’s group recorded for harmonia mundi in 1998. While the gloriously delicate singing was the listener’s natural focus — along with the squirmy red earthworms on the screen – much credit should go to Bowers-Broadbent for his subtle yet essential support at the organ, sometimes merely doubling the vocal parts and sometimes leaning into drones that intensified the emotional impact. In the context of Pärt’s minimalist sound world, such efforts can have a big pay-off. Songs from the Soil ended with Pärt’s textless duet for soprano and tenor (Paul Bentley-Angell), “Spiegel im Spiegel” [Mirror in the Mirror] (1978, rev. 2010).

Danish director Phie Ambo’s ‘Songs from the Soil’ employs exquisite videography.

There are any number of parallels between Songs from the Soil and David Lang’s song cycle the writings: the long relationship between composer and ensemble, the acknowledgment of life as a cycle, the use of Old Testament materials, the minimalist harmonic language, the borrowing of early-music techniques of vocal writing. While billed as a world premiere, most of the writings has been performed over the 15 years that Lang has been composing it. Only the second of the five songs, “if I am silent,” was new, a co-commission by Carnegie Hall and Nederlands Kamerkoor.

The song cycle is composed for 12 vocalists, so Theatre of Voices was joined by the Yale Voxtet, whose director is James Taylor. Hillier conducted the work with suppleness and subtlety, clearly understanding the early-music roots of Lang’s writing 12 separate but interwoven parts for as many voices; this is a choral texture much different from standard SATB with the parts tripled. Each singer understood that, too, and succeeded in expressing his or her part as an individual while also integrating with the group.

The newest movement, “if I am silent,” is a stunning piece. Rushes of words are swallowed into long grands pauses. Single voices rise above the fray moment by moment; tempos vary. This is not Pärt-generation minimalism but an outgrowth of it, allowing for development and motion. Lang brings in echoes of Renaissance contrapuntal concepts without following those models strictly – for example, canons with tightly timed entrances at the unison that don’t actually lead to lines set against countersubjects, but only more entrances of the same material.

Composer David Lang acknowledging the Yale Voxtet and Theatre of Voices.

Lang draws from the medieval technique of laying polyphony over a cantus firmus in “for love is strong,” assigning one male and one female singer a slow, sustained base melody while the rest of the ensemble ascends with new text in quick bursts, delivered parlando. Other elements are slowly added: a tenor using the words “for love is strong” as a mantra, a soprano rising in arpeggios. Eventually the listener realizes that what seemed like music in stasis has grown and changed significantly.

Despite the repetitive design of this work, Hillier never let the declamation become robotic. Nor did he allow the phrasing to be muddied as the complexity increased.

At the end, the chorus sings a variant of the first movement (which happens to have been the first Lang composed), “again (after ecclesiastes).” The complete song cycle lasts about an hour, which felt long. But that slight frustration plays into Lang’s theme: The repetitions of life can feel long, and even when you think you (or humanity at large) are making progress, everything circles back to a new version of old material.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.