Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco (IOCSF) gave the San Francisco performance of its Fall 2016 program. The title of that program was The Full Heart: Choral Music of Love and Passion, making it one of the few events this month with no connection to any of the seasonal holidays. It was also an event in which there was a good chance that few, if any, of the selections were familiar to most of the audience, meaning that the performance had the potential to be an engaging journey of discovery.
The least familiar of those pieces was the one receiving its San Francisco premiere (having received its world premiere a week earlier when this program was performed in Berkeley). This was the latest effort of IOCSF’s Composer-in-Residence Nicholas Weininger (who also sings in the tenor section), a setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Into the Golden Vessel of Great Song.” Taking on Millay’s poetry, even when reading it from the page or trying to recite it to others, is a bit like walking into a minefield. Structurally, this particular poem is a sonnet; but the phrase structure hauls out just about every trick in the book to distract the reader from that rigid constraint. What emerges in this particular case almost amounts to free-association stream-of-consciousness in which highly vivid images bump into each other with almost chilling dissonance.
Sadly, none of this seemed to register in Weininger’s setting. His own structures were evidently attentive to giving a clear account of those words; and at least some of his harmonies hinted at how much of that poem’s “meaning” was churning beneath its surface structure. However, the overall effect was one of an effort to do justice to the words without necessarily realizing what turned those words into poetry. By way of consolation, Weininger should probably realize that composers (no names out of respect for the living) with far greater reputations have stumbled just as ineffectively through Millay’s poems and fallen from even greater heights.
Unfortunately, much of the entire program never seemed to home in on any of the rhetorical approaches that would do justice to the overarching theme of love and passion. Some of this may have been due to the performance itself. There were too many instances of faces buried in partbooks never registering sustained eye contact with Artistic Director Zane Fiala. Indeed, the most intense connection between conductor and ensemble came when tenor Chris Filice took a turn as guest conductor to lead Eric Whitacre’s setting of Octavio Paz’ poem “A Boy and a Girl” (in English translation). This was sung from memory; and the chemistry could not have been more compelling, particularly when confronting the shock value of the final verse.
A similar level of intensity arose during the performance of David Conte’s “Hosanna,” which made an intentionally abrupt departure from the usual rhetoric associated with the Sanctus section of the Mass. This is not the first time I have encountered Conte’s knack for putting an entirely new twist on the all-too-familiar. Both Fiala and IOCSF clearly appreciated that knack, resulting in what may have been the most memorable part of the evening.
Yet that was the problem. Reading the texts in the program book before the concert began, one could come away with the impression that an adventurous journey of discovery was, indeed, in the planning. Yet after the evening had wound down with a performance of Samuel Barber’s “The Coolin” as an encore, one discovered that memory was strained in trying to recall when those themes of love and passion had really registered. Indeed, memory was more inclined to recall the opening selection, Huang Ruo’s “Without Words,” whose imaginative approach to setting individual Chinese syllables had nothing to do with the overall theme and was included only because Huang’s music had been such a favorite at the Spring 2016 concert.