By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK – A concert called “Balancing Bubbles,” at John Jay College on May 19, with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and the Shallaway Youth Choir, from Newfoundland, was an intriguing surprise. The choirs gave their all for the world premiere of Ellen Reid’s heartfelt So Much on My Soul, led by Francisco J. Nuñez with energy and enthusiasm that swept them – and the audience – along.
Before the combined-chorus finale, each ensemble sang its own selections. Shallaway, under Kellie Walsh, went first, with a folk song group that liberally used props. “Wayfaring Stranger,” for example, was tonally anchored by a bowl whose rim was fingered in circles by a choir member. There were a couple of local songs – one in which signs were raised expressing concern about mental health issues in Canada. (Newfoundland is off the Canadian coast, northeast of Nova Scotia.) And the unusual chords of a Salve Regina by Miklós Kocsár were negotiated well in tune.
Compared with the Young People’s Chorus, the Shallaway Youth Choir was a homogeneous group, with girls in long blue gowns and boys in formal dress, singing with a sweet innocence not generally associated with teen choirs. A fair amount of the pieces’ harmony was in thirds, which added to the effect.
The two choruses were completing an annual weekend of choral panels and workshops called Vocal Resolutions: Shaping Perceptions Through Music, conceived by the Young People’s Chorus, of which the joint concert was the finale. In both sections, individual choir members came forward to explain what the music means to them.
The two sections were separated by a percussion quartet called Mantra, playing Reid’s earlier Fear/Release. Although there were side drums on the floor, sounds that invited most attention were those from pitched percussion instruments, and the piece had an essentially gentle, sparkling aspect.
The New York choristers were bigger and tougher than the Shallaway group, with a big-city aura. They wore black. Under Nuñez, the group’s founder, they sang ambitious selections with mouthfuls of text by Argento, Sondheim, and others. Props also were in evidence here: group bubble-blowing up into the air, and balloons blown up and batted into the audience, which good-naturedly batted them around some more.
Reid’s Pulitzer Prize was for a one-act opera called prism, so she is skilled at setting words. So Much On my Soul came out of talks that Reid had with the singers, about what makes them personally anxious and how they cope with their fears: “Waiting on the rain so I can cry and hope no one will notice.” Soul was commissioned before the prize was awarded, but Reid generously came to this premiere, and hosted a panel before the performance.
Reid’s colorful, charming style is well proportioned for the piece and successfully tailored to this type of voice, with little spikes of dissonance at the second. This is not a contrapuntal piece, but is instead built on attractive harmonies and adventurous part-writing. The six students who had written the poems came forward for a bow. I hope they record the piece so I can listen to it again.
Reid was quoted as saying, “It felt important to have cycles and repeating gestures, as the journey to self-acceptance and balance is cyclical and endless.” I’d say the message was delivered.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.