Music review: Chorus Austin’s “Past, Present and Future”

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Liz Cass, mezzo soprano

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

 

Hafiz, the poet, is one of those half-mystic types who gets by with only one name, like Blake, Rumi and Prince.

For their 50th anniversary, the skilled voices of Chorus Austin, tackled audience favorites this weekendand a new commission from Austin composer Donald Grantham.

It was a balanced evening, a first half packed with gems which were requested in advance by Chorus Austin supporters. The music began with a vibrant selection from Mozart’s “Requiem,” an impossible-to-miss classic if ever there was one, and continued with Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bizet.

It was something of a mixtape of the great choral requiems (to Anglicize the Latin), and Chorus Austin spared no expense, pulling in a full orchestra and a line up of talented singers: soprano Janeene Williams, alto Liz Cass, tenor Scot Cameron and baritone David Small.

Chorus Austin’s conductor Ryan Heller led this ensemble with a sure hand and received a gorgeous tone from his singers, which, along with the orchestra, made a massive sound that shot through the hall. During the staggering “Libera Me” from Verdi’s requiem, the attack of the work in the smaller venue let audiences feel the sound, as much as hear it.

Liz Cass, mezzo soprano

Liz Cass, mezzo soprano

But Heller’s soloists were here to play as well. “If you get the urge to sing along,” Heller grinned before Liz Cass took on “Habanera” from “Carmen,” “Please don’t.”

The audience wisely heeded Heller’s gentle plea, as Cass began slinking across the stage in character, and in outstanding voice.

If the sheer volume and emotion of the Verdi “Requiem” was bracing for audiences, Donald Grantham’s new work was bracing for different reasons.

Grantham’s new work, “The Contemplations of Hafiz” started with a bang, and joined into a soaring chorus. In an unexpected turn the orchestral sound was classically American, almost mid-century Hollywood.

If you tend to read poets with an air of quiet contemplation, it became quickly clear that Grantham read Hafiz in epic proportions.

Hafiz’s writing about love isn’t whispered in tender voices, Grantham seemed to say, but they’re pleas to the divine, and the music followed on this interplanetary scale.

It was presented in short sections, each with its own character. “Greeting God,” the second, with lyrics like “Tonight / there is a jeweled falcon singing in / a blessed pain,” was a shorter charmer, a seductive meditation.

At key points there was some atmospheric magic behind the scenes — subtle harmonics from violins paired with low drones in the choir. This was a challenging work. Grantham’s harmonic palate moves beyond the comfortable range of most listeners. Moments of sweetness were hard won, though rewarding when they came.

Chorus Austin sang this moving, expansive program with a warmth and sophistication.

And despite challenging the audience with its harmonic palate, Grantham’s work persuaded you with points of interest and intrigue throughout. Not the least of those accomplishments was that it blew up our quaint ideas of dull poetry readings, by shining a light on the words of this mystic in ways that were colorful and fierce.

 


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