The chamber choir Cappella SF, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin, made its recording debut in July of 2015 with a “Christmas in July” release entitled Light of Gold: Cappella SF Christmas. However, by the time this recording was released, Cappella SF had already completed a recording session in January of 2014 in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), engineered by David Bowles’ Swineshead Productions. This session was arranged to memorialize Conrad Susa, formerly Chair of the SFCM Composition Department, who had died in November of 2013. The resulting recordings combined two of Susa’s choral song cycles with works by the current Chair, David Conte, who has acknowledged Susa as a teacher, even through he had earned his degrees at Bowling Green State University and Cornell University.
In February of 2015, Cappella SF returned to the SFCM Concert Hall to perform these works in a concert that Conte arranged to honor Susa’s memory. This past June Delos Productions released the album based on those 2104 sessions under the title Facing West, which is also the title of one of the songs. I offered the backstory for this recording because I had been at the 2015 memorial concert. It was, a bit to my embarrassment, my “first contact” with the choral writing of Susa (and, unless I am mistaken in my timing, also Conte). One advantage of the concert experience was that Conte provided some introductory remarks in which he recalled how much he had learned about setting text from Susa.
One can definitely appreciate Susa’s skill in this matter from his two selections on Facing West. The respective authors are James Joyce (six of the poems from Chamber Music, Joyce’s first published book) and Federico García Lorca (translated into English by Will Kirkland). In the former case Susa’s understanding of Joyce goes beyond grasping both the semantics and the style of each poem. The work is truly a “cycle,” in that those six poems unfold a single narrative. In his own notes, reproduced in the accompanying booklet, Susa called this a “miniature drama,” which he outlined. The songs are performed with piano accompaniment (provided by Keisuke Nakagoshi), which fulfills the narrative requirement of setting while the chorus accounts for the unfolding of the action itself.
The other Susa selection, Landscapes and Silly Songs, provides a sharp contrast to his approach to Joyce. Susa composed this in 1987 and revised it in 2010. It is not so much a cycle as a study in contrasts. The two “Landscape” poems are the first and fourth of a set of five; and they demonstrate how musical expressiveness is often more a matter of connotation, rather than denotation. Each of the remaining three songs takes its own approach to playfulness. “Silly Song” is the last of the three. It is structured as a dialog between mother and child that will be familiar to anyone who knows the darker Germanic folk poetry collected in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the youth’s magic horn), one of Gustav Mahler’s favorite text sources. In contrast to Mahler, however, all five of these songs are sung a cappella, basically allowing the full weight of understanding to rest upon how the words themselves are heard.
The two major Conte selections both involve the texts of Walt Whitman, A Whitman Triptych (a cappella settings of three poems) and Invocation and Dance (two excerpts from “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” accompanied by four-hand piano, Nakagoshi and Kevin Korth, and percussion, Artie Storch and Stan Muncy). The “panels” of Conte’s triptych were composed at different times for different occasions; and each involves an extract from a longer source. The title of the album is taken from the final “panel,” a poem whose full title is “Facing West From California;” but, as Conte observes in the booklet notes, Whitman himself never visited California. That particular song was composed for the International Orange Chorale in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge (after which that ensemble is named). The triptych as a whole amounts to a musical effort to capture Whitman’s explicitly overt sense of self without trying to overwhelm the listener with excessive grandiloquence. Invocation and Dance, on the other hand, almost has a sense of ritual celebration (due, at least in part, to the influence of the percussion parts), an energetic rhetoric that brings the entire album to an exhilarating conclusion.
At the other end of the album, the opening selection is “The Composer,” Conte’s setting of a poem by John Stirling Walker. The text is an imaginative attempt to capture the mind of a composer at work. Conte’s booklet note observes that the composer Walker had in mind was Ludwig van Beethoven. Most would agree that vocal music was never Beethoven’s strong suit, so it was not difficult for Conte to see through the Beethoven influence to a broader perspective of creativity. The text is almost a philosophical hypothesis, but Conte skillfully turns it into a musical experience through which the attentive listener may apprehend not only what Walker was trying to say but also how he was wrestling with the underlying ideas.