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Guests of the Santa Cruz Chamber Chorale, the San Francisco Chamber Singers turn out a concert long on text--and on gorgeous musicality

By Scott MacClelland

Putting Four Saints into perspective is a daunting task at least. Thomson's music was fabricated around an almost-nonsense libretto by Gertrude Stein. In fact, Stein's piece is nothing if not a play on words, or a play of words, a spiel.

AS IF IT WERE the last concert of all time, the San Francisco Chamber Singers packed as much as possible into their Feb. 13 afternoon concert. Even the surrounding weather, relentlessly foul and gloomy, added a touch of desperation.

Hosted by the Santa Cruz Chorale, the program, titled "American Kaleidoscope: 20th Century Music by American Composers," contained works by Conrad Susa, William Schuman, Jacob Avshalomov, Virgil Thomson, Paul Chihara and Earl Kim. Avshalomov and Chihara were present and offered comments about their pieces. Music director Robert Geary provided his own remarks, but relinquished his baton to one of his 16 singers for excerpts from Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Indeed, this centrally featured work got the most introduction, courtesy of a narrator who put it into historical perspective, and extensive background notes in the printed program.

Putting Four Saints into perspective is a daunting task at least. Thomson's music was fabricated around an almost-nonsense libretto by Gertrude Stein. In fact, Stein's piece is nothing if not a play on words, or a play of words, a spiel. It is this very playfulness that Thomson reflects in his music. The composer matches Stein's iconoclasm, virtually word for word, note by note.

Chihara's Under the Greenwood Tree, a premiere, is the third of three madrigals he has written for the SFCS. The composer explained the impact on his music of such recent technical innovations in filmmaking as "morphing," that seamless transition of film figures from one form to another. The text in this case came from As You Like It, with bits from Christopher Marlowe and even I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now woven into the fabric. Like Four Saints, the piece deployed the singers both as a group and individually and showed a remarkably deft and subtle hand with all its musical and textual resources.

As a group, especially in homophonic textures, Geary's ensemble sang with no vibrato, in barbershop style. How refreshing to hear the close, expressive harmonies of Schuman's Carols of Death without the obliterating effect of vibrato--and how rare! Yet these same singers, as soloists, took full advantage of vibrato and with equally impressive results in other works on display, notably the Thomson.

Avshalomov's Tom O'Bedlam, as the composer explained, follows a band of nonviolent lunatics released from Bedlam Hospital due to overcrowding. Its four verses, nearly as odd as Stein's, each ended with a refrain, while oboe and tambourine accompanied. The oboe (played by James Moore) also flavored a "Dirge for Cymbeline," one of two "charms from Shakespeare" by Susa (composer of The Dangerous Liaisons, which was recently premiered by the San Francisco Opera). The first, "Witches Charm from Macbeth," was a hip-hop version of "Double, double, toil and trouble."

The program ended (two hours, without a break, after it began) with settings by Earl Kim of Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" and four poems by Keats. Completed less than a year before the composer's death in 1998, the piece is homophonic in style and once again weaves beguiling harmonies that needed and got that crucial non-vibrato delivery. But for all that was accomplished in a stormy afternoon, the one thing conspicuous by its absence was printed texts. As articulate and clear as these singers sing, some of these settings simply swallow the words in the music.

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From the February 16-23, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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