Yesterday evening at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church the Bay Choral Guild (BCG), led by Artistic Director Sanford Dole, presented the first performance in San Francisco of the complete score of Paul Ayres’ Messyah, which the composer calls “A Re-Written Version of Messiah.” Some readers may recall that Dole first brought an earlier version of this piece to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, when he led his Sanford Dole Ensemble (SDE) in a performance in December of 2009. At that time Ayres had selected many of the most memorable selections George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio and taken his “re-writing” processes in a variety of different directions, including jazz, gospel, and improvisation. About a year ago Dole commissioned Ayers to apply his techniques to those portions of the Handel score that he had not yet “processed.”
Back in 2009 SDE was Dole’s “elite corps,” while BCG was more of a “semi-professional” group, to the extent that many of its members had day jobs that had nothing to do with music. Ayers’ re-writing process often came up with serious challenges, such as superimposing groups singing totally unrelated music (the sort of technique that was Charles Ives’ bread and butter). Often it was possible to appreciate SDE’s technical chops, even when Ayers’ wit was not firing on all cylinders. It is therefore important to note that BCG rose to almost all of Ayers’ challenges just as admirably, which is particularly significant since, at the end of the day, more of Ayers’ music amounted to more of those misfires.
The fact is that Ayres’ resources for “messing around” with Handel were limited. Over the course of two and one-half hours, some of the jokes were told too many times, while others never had much of a punch line to land. My guess is that anyone who has experienced Messyah will come away with at least one section that tickled the funny bone just the right way; but I also suspect that many (if not most) found themselves looking at the list of all of the oratorio’s movements wondering just how many remained before the end. I must confess that, in my case, somewhere around the time the shepherds were abiding in the fields, a voice in the back of my head was shouting, “Are we still in Part I?!?”
Some of the difficulty probably resided in those factors beyond the BCG choral work. All four of the vocal soloists (soprano Ann Moss, mezzo Kathleen Moss, tenor Michael Desnoyers, and bass Igor Viera) could not be faulted on their oratorio chops; but they did not always find the right groove for Ayres’ re-writes. Most notable was that the soprano work was absolutely stunning when Moss was allowed to be a soprano; but, while she deserves high marks for trying, she could never really summon up the gospel spirit that was Ayers’ goal for “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Perhaps, if she had been given the time to jam a bit more with the combo for that selection, she might have been able to find the right groove. However, yesterday was her third time out with this number; and it was clear that she was still in alien territory.
More critical was the weakness of the string players from Eric K’s Redwood Symphony, including the Music Director himself on viola. (Dole did all the conducting.) I find it hard to believe that any of Ayres’ re-writes required string players with absolutely no sense of intonation. Sadly, Dole had to work with six such string players (four violins, viola, and cello). This was particularly critical when Ayres chose to work quarter-tones into his score. What could the attentive listener expect from players who could not even play their semitones clearly?
On the other hand just about every intended sight gag managed to register just the right way. Those who remembered 2009 knew what to expect from “All we like sheep;” but Dole seemed to know that such a joke could not be delivered the same way twice. So he came up with a new twist at the end, which may have been the most memorable moment of the evening. Another was the opportunity finally to hear the sound of a potter’s vessel dashed in pieces.