Friday, June 22 , 2018, 8:26 pm | Fair 61º


Margo Kline: Master Chorale Performs Masterful ‘Canto General’

Timeless themes resonate in powerful concerts centered on soloists Manzi and Schiffmann

Revolutionary echoes were inescapable last weekend when the Santa Barbara Master Chorale presented the stirring “Canto General,” with music by Mikis Theodorakis and words by Pablo Neruda.

The chorale, accompanied by a live orchestra, presented this 1975 work at Santa Barbara First Presbyterian Church, the acoustics of which always enhance vocal performances. Conductor and music director Steven Hodson was on the podium, and the outstanding soloists were soprano Carol Ann Manzi and bass-baritone Nikolaus Schiffmann.

The two revolutionaries, Kazantzakis and Neruda, were joined in spirit at the time the composition premiered, in 1975. Neruda, a Chilean and lifelong Communist, had died two years earlier. Kazantzakis, who began by fighting the right-wing government of the Greek colonels some time after premiering this music, shifted more to the right himself.

However, the scope of “Canto General,” which translates as “Song of the People,” is far greater than 20th-century politics would suggest. In the early 1970s, Neruda and Kazantzakis traveled to Chile to select which portions of the poet’s long narrative poem would be set to music by the Greek composer. Neruda never heard the finished work; the democratic Chilean government was overthrown by that country’s right-wing faction, and Neruda died soon after.

Wherever they ended up on the political spectrum, both artists declared their love of humanity and their longing for freedom throughout their lives, and these themes resound in “Canto General.” In the performances on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, enthusiastic audiences obviously were moved by these timeless themes.

Soprano Manzi made excellent use of her mezzo range from the first movement of the piece, “Algunas Bestias” (“Some Beasts”). The music may have been composed by a Greek, but it rings with Latin rhythms, and Manzi moved with them, in her low-cut black evening gown and lavishly ruffled red stole.

Neruda’s words were in Spanish, but the printed program gave the translation: “It was the twilight of the iguana. From its glistening battlement, a tongue darted into the verdure, the monastic anteater trod the jungle with melodious feet,” and on through a catalog of South American creatures: caymans, jaguars, badgers, “the giant anaconda, like the circle of the Earth.”

Bass-baritone Schiffmann is another local artist with a devoted following, and for good reason. His voice is rich and can be dark, and his musicality is precise and elegant.

But Theodorakis the composer perhaps should have the last word. He wrote of the work, and of his poet friend and colleague, the following words, printed in the program: “For me, ‘Canto General’ is something like a gospel for our time. Neruda reveals in these lines his fighting spirit. This poem treats the history of his country with an uncanny immediacy. This poem was meant to help mankind overcome its moments of crisis and to help justice prevail ...”

At the end of Sunday’s concert, the audience delivered a standing ovation to the chorale for its rousing performance.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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