Sunday, April 28, 2013

battle hymns at Kezar Pavilion

Kezar Pavilion is a huge, decrepit old gymnasium on the Haight-Ashbury side of Golden Gate Park. This weekend it has been the apt setting for four monumental, ambitious choral performances of David Lang's battle hymns in its West Coast debut after a 2009 premiere in Philadelphia at the 23rd Street Armory. The final performance is this Sunday afternoon, and if you have $30 to spare, the hour-long show is very worthwhile.

There are three choruses involved in the production, all under the direction of local choral powerhouse Robert Geary, adding up to approximately 200 performers. The largest contingent, dressed in grey shirts and caps, was the San Francisco Choral Society.

They were joined by a large contingent from the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir above and the professional contemporary music chorus Volti below who doubled as occasional soloists. The Saturday afternoon performance, both musically and in complex, choreographed movement and group formations, was astonishingly good. I have participated in enough large-scale productions at the opera to know how difficult it can be to move herds of musical performers about smoothly and skillfully. This was a triumph for everyone involved.

The piece is in five movements, starting with the children's choir suddenly appearing from hiding places in the bleachers around the gymnasium while singing layers of ethereal a capella music that reverberated throughout the whole space.

The long first movement that constituted the first half, a father's love, was an alphabetical rearrangement of phrases from the famous Civil War letter by Sullivan Ballou to his wife which was to be sent to her if he did not survive the conflict. Joining the children's and then the adult chorus was tenor soloist David Kurtenbach (above left, talking to James Parr), whose exquisite voice resonated through the entire gymnasium as he slowly walked the perimeter of the space. Four soprano soloists also joined the fray, as did nine dancers from the Leah Stein Dance Company below who were among the original commissioners in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the dancers felt extraneous and distracting as they wound in and out of the choral forces. battle hymns is Minimalist Music with a capital "M," simple phrases and musical progressions layered into a complex whole, and all the dancers' writhing to Twyla Tharp type movement interfered with the austerity of the simpler movement already required of the chorus. In an interesting interview with the composer by Cedric Westphal, Lang states: "The commission was for a chorus. I wrote a piece for chorus. Part of the commissioner was also a choreographer, who then took my music and added choreography to it. I never told the choreographer what to do, and she never told me what to do. The piece has been done with the choreography, and without the choreography. They're not tied together."

At the entrance to Kezar, James and I were asked if we wanted to be "Active Audience Members," and we replied, "Of course." What this meant was being led into the middle of the gym for the central movement, I'll be a soldier, taken from a Stephen Foster song, while surrounded by the standing adult chorus and the crawling, standing and dying children's chorus. The sound was pure bliss, and it was disappointing having to return to the bleachers for the final two movements.

The percussionist in the balcony above, by the way, was Toshi Makihara. He and everyone involved deserves congratulations for a difficult job superbly done.


Lizzye's Trail Inn said...

Dear Sir
I agree with everything you posted about Battle Hymns except the dancing. I saw the last performance and found the dance elemental to the whole thing. Particularly the pas de deux that opened "Tell Me", just broke my heart. The tears came when that huge chorus
lined up in a great, narrow, grey v, It made me think Viet Nam Memorial. The music was sublime and the best thing I've ever heard Bob Geary do. My husband has been singing with him for 15 years.

Civic Center said...

Dear Elizabeth: I'm so glad you appreciated the dancing. For me, it got in the way of watching the singers (including your husband) doing their own choreography which was so much more touching, possibly because it was "amateur." It reflected and evoked the "amateur" soldiers who ran around dying in the actual Civil War, and was genuinely moving, while the Leah Stein dancers struck me as a bunch of "look-at-me" performers who kept getting in the way of what was essentially a solemn memorial.

And yes, Bob Geary did himself seriously proud. All three of his ensembles were extraordinary, and I loved how they worked together.