UCSB’s in-all-major-points-exceptional Chamber Choir is about to set another record. On their concert tour of France this summer, they will perform in collaboration with the Notre-Dame Cathedral Choir — the first such collaboration in the Notre-Dame Choir’s 850-year history.
(For some reason, this reminds me of Richard Condon’s novel The Oldest Confession in which Condon referred to a Spanish aristocrat as “a tribal yo-yo on a string 800 years long.”)
Before leaving for France, however, the Chamber Choir, conducted by director and founder Michel Marc Gervais, will perform a concert at 8 p.m. Friday in St. Anthony’s Seminary Chapel, 2300 Garden St. in Santa Barbara.
Naturally we congratulate Maestro Gervais and his splendid ensemble on their coup, but from the more localized perspective of an American music lover, they are to be congratulated even more ardently for the program of this concert, which is named “Reincarnations.” The choir is in the midst of an exploration of 20th century American choral music, and this is the focus of the concert.
The Barber works on the schedule are his Agnus Dei — a choral transcription of the Adagio of his String Quartet, Opus 11, which had already made him famous when transcribed for string orchestra as Adagio for Strings — and the three-madrigal cycle Reincarnations (“Mary Hynes,” “Anthony O’Daly,” “The Coolin”) based on poems by Irish writer James Stephens.
The choir will also sing Finney’s 1947 cycle, Spherical Madrigals (“When again all these rare perfections meet,” “All-circling point,” “His body was an orb,” “On a round ball,” “Nor doe I doubt,” “See how the arched Earth”), which are settings of 17th-century poems containing references to orbs, circles, balls and globes.
In 1938, Barber got a call from Randall Thompson, who was then the director of Barber’s musical alma mater, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, inviting him to come back to form and direct a Madrigal Chorus. Barber accepted, and made quite a handsome success of the Madrigal Chorus during the three years he directed it, composing for the group not only the madrigals in Reincarnations, but also The Virgin Martyrs and A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map. With his extensive background in vocal music, his appreciation of 16th- and 17th-century polyphony and his deep love of poetry, the madrigal form was a natural for him. The poems set in Reincarnations were from a 1918 book of the same title by Stephens.
Some may be surprised — not to say dumbfounded — by my inclusion of Finney among the “great” American composers of the 20th century. Indeed, he is a recent “discovery,” even for me. But once I had acquired and listened repeatedly to a recording of his Symphony No. 1, “Communiqué (1943), I knew I had stumbled across the real thing. Every further work of his that I have dug up, mostly thanks to the irreplaceable recordings by the Louisville Symphony, has confirmed for me my opinion that our country has produced no greater composer.
I can’t account for his obscurity without naming names, so I will just recommend his music and let it go at that. The Spherical Madrigals justify, for once, the over-worked term “ethereal.” Not being a musicologist, I can’t say whether they are tonal, chromatic, atonal, 12-tonal or what — because Finney was a master of all technical means (he numbered George Crumb among his students) — but they sound neither modern nor ancient, avant garde nor reactionary, simply sublime.
Tickets to the Chamber Choir are $15 for general admission and $7 for students, with tickets sold at the door. For more information, click here or call 805.893.7001.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.