Te Deum vocal ensemble presented an unaccompanied performance of two contrasting masses and two mostly wordless world premiers at Kansas City's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Saturday evening; the program is being repeated at Village Church on Sunday afternoon and Trinity Lutheran Church in Lawrence, Kansas on Monday.
Summer seemed to have caught the cathedral engineers by surprise; the men, understandably, doffed their tail coats, providing less of a promotion for the Helzberg Penguin Plaza.
The Unspeakable Names of Stars, by Philip Rice (b. 1988) who used a system of creating lyrics that, although very methodical to the writer, is totally abstract to the auditor. Rice borrowed Johann Bayer's hierarchy of star brightness from 1603; stars of different magnitudes within constellations were assigned different Greek letters, delta, beta, etc. The singers were intoning the correct Greek symbol for the heavenly body Mr. Rice was thinking of at the time. The trio on the balcony ledge sang the Latin names of the brightest stars (certainly someone noticed) as a counterpoint to all else that was sounding.
There was much waffling sound and atonal descending patterns (which might remind one of falling stars). Shortly before the close of the piece was a consonant chord, or possibly a whole traditional cadence, before a relaunch into swirling star noises. The work was a few minutes of tolerably pleasant sound for which the chorus and director must be greatly praised for producing.
The title alone denotes, not only the naming of stars, but the term unspeakable generally indicates a holy deity. Although the organizing paradigm for the lyrics was opaque, the listener was led on a cosmic roller coaster trace through the unending sky beacons. Animated graphics could be added to the music, following the same Greek/Latin plan.
After the intermission, Daniel J. Knaggs' (b. 1983) Mysterium, also commissioned for this concert, explored the concept of the quest to understand God, which is impossible with words only, so there weren't any. Vowel sounds that either blended or clashed with each other, high and low, elongated into breathless lines that might, indeed, represent the unknowable qualities of the Creator.
Both of the introduced pieces explored using voice sounds instrumentally, without expressing written poetic sentiments. The concept has been investigated over many years, one might even include Mozart's Alleluia as part of that quest. If an auditor leaves without the same thoughts the composer had, is it any more of a lack of communication than not imagining bucolic scenes while experiencing Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony?
Josef Rheinberger's (1839-1901) Mass in E Flat for Double Choir and Francis Poulenc's (1899-1963) Mass in G Major were sung side-by-side: Rheinberger's Kyrie, then Poulenc's, etc. It made for an elucidating opportunity to hear the differences in approach taken for the same sacred texts.
Rheinberger represented lyric romanticism, while exploring some non-traditional sound combinations. During a time of extensive, powerful, orchestral forces accompanying huge choirs, it is good to note that this intimate mass is the composer at his best.
The choral inflections were under control nearly all the time; the soft-stronger-soft phrases were completed with energetic ensemble. The sopranos' floaty highs were well-tuned and unforced. A time or two the basses pressed their lowest tones a little, but that was quickly gone. There was surely a blue note in Rheinberger's Benedictus. The gentle sforzando in the Agnus Dei made a crying effect either of the whole creation groaning over the Savior's sacrifice or a bleating herd of sheep. Or both.
Poulenc's (1899-1963) Mass in G Major was yet another example of Francis' ability to use all modern sounds and colors and still represent the Classic and Romantic periods. He never seems to be using a technique, he is simply going where the music wants to go, and it sounds different from Haydn. The homophonic Kyrie is a humble group prayer; Christians are bold to plead for mercy from the Lord.
Poulenc contrasts a chirpy, triumphal Sanctus with a pastoral folk song of a Benedictus. Agnus Dei has strong statements, but does not end as a fine symphony, but, in painfully soft, low chords, as a worshiper having just partaken of the Holy Feast, who has come to some realization of the Sacrifice.