Piedmont East Bay Choirs: youthful voices, new music

The Piedmont Choirs were joined by the St Catharine’s College Girls’ Choir of Cambridge, England, for their spring concert last Friday in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. Led by founding choral director Robert Geary, this concert was also a coming-out party for composer and new Piedmont Chorus Artistic Director Eric Tuan, whose own composition was featured on the program.

The variety and abilities of the several choruses featured here were simply staggering, and it is no surprise to find that they have won top international awards, toured heavily, and even released their own recordings.

Much of that credit may be due to their training, especially Geary’s bent for new and challenging music. “There is a ‘perfect storm’ when it comes to the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir and new music,” he said. “As a result of the training our singers have had, there is a highly skilled group of young musical people with adventurous and creative attitudes ready to pounce on the offering of the most innovative composers.”

And pounce they did. Led by Geary, the Ancora choir opened with “On a mountain Path,” five poems by Basho set to music by Peter Knell. This advanced young women’s ensemble delivered perfect descending dissonances, all a capella and off-book sung in careful Japanese, and then turned to sharp exclamations and dense fist-like chords for the second haiku. Those dense chords turned as ephemeral as a flower as they described finding a violet on a mountain path.

“HIbari lori,” a lark motionless in the sky, was an image also well defined by the music: high voices floated effortlessly up an interval, and the mezzos followed, and then each descended a step into a dissonance that buzzed with perfect clarity.

And as they sang of rain on the mountain their sh! sh! sh!’s and arpeggios overlapped with the random beauty of rain and insects. The final haiku ended with measured tread and celestial harmonies.

In “Vermont Voices” Don McLean took the poetry of William Mundell and set it for chorus, soft staccato texts between gelid suspensions of sound. “A leaf uncurling is a poem… a bud unfurling is a song…” There was one moment when a chord rang so perfectly that several organ pipes buzzed in sympathy.

Their set ended with Peter Toth’s “Magas hegyröl foly le a viz,” where held notes in a descending staircase of tones created tingling overlapping harmonies. Low alto drones and high yearning sopranos gave it a genuine Hungarian folk feeling, and then they returned to the inner life of scales.

The younger Girls Choir of Cambridge, England followed, led by Edward Wickham. They began with the “Oxyrhynchus Hymn,” an ancient text found on papyrus from the third century, a winsome work of lovely unisons and ancient Greek scales, and perfect for tuning to each other in an unfamiliar hall.

They turned to bell-like chords and low murmurs for “Les Saintes Maries de la Mer,” infusing the sea-themes with wordless waves and high soprano gull cries, then turned from French back to Greek in Koutsogiannis Apostolis’ “The endless fountain,” supplementing the singers’ cool intervals with tuned water glasses. Here we heard a balance of ancient chords and contemporary line.

Listening to these accomplished young singers, what was most remarkable about the programming was how each work was also a vehicle for training, from the deep listening that goes into those clarion unisons to the careful pitch work of intervals and moving through the ringing echo of perfectly tuned harmonies into the buzz of dissonances. Along with that was an exposure to different languages from Latin and Greek to Hungarian and Japanese, developing their facility with very different vowels and discovering the rhythms and inner structures of those speeches. And finally, their approach to experimental works was grounded in traditional scales, notably Veljo Tormis’ evocative “Modal Études,” which the Piedmont Concert Choir sang under the excellent direction of Andrew Brown.

That facility with experimental work brought us to a highlight of the concert, Eric Tuan’s “Crossings,” a powerful social commentary based on four refugee populations. “It is one journey divided into four stories,” explained Tuan before turning to conduct his World Premiere, with the Ancora, Ensemble and St. Catharine’s choirs combined on stage.

They began with the journey of poet Javier Zamora, who was nine years old when his Grandmother sent him on a bus by himself to flee the violence of El Salvador. The texts were poetic fragments, and the setting was rich, and the whole had a sense of clarity. It was followed by “Caravan,” a section about fleeing World War II Hungary. The choirs began a hum of harmonies in the back of the Church, slowly pacing forward with the altos leading a low line against the sharp clack of wooden sticks. Tuan’s composing is personal and passionate, and for this text he used the story of the great-grandmother of one of the children in the Piedmont chorus. There were slow arpeggios and a cloud of voices singing around us as they moved to the front, and a sense of barely held restraint.

“Barbed Wire Fence” described the internment camps of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, a moving meditation in soft clouds of sound and gray showers, mixing microtonal and folk scales, with text of Haikus written by a teenager from those camps. They ended with a Hebrew Psalm of thanks, where phrases began in simple unisons and then branched out into clouds of harmony. “His mercy endures forever,” they sang with jazz touches of Manhattan Transfer, and the four stories of migration came together as almost-holy pilgrimages.

Before turning to composition at Stanford and Cambridge, Tuan trained as a young member of the Piedmont Choirs, and it is exciting to see one of “their own” now return. He is currently the conductor of the Piedmont Ecco ensemble and assumes Artistic Directorship of the entire program in July.

Another excellent moment that ought to be mentioned in this very full concert was the Premiere of “Eloise and her Flying Car,” by long-time Piedmont Choirs faculty member Sue Bohlin, a humorous work dedicated to her two-year-old grand-daughter. Accessible and lyrical, this felt more kin to Broadway or rock opera.

There is little room to describe the many other performances, from Meredith Monk’s hair-raising “Panda Chant II” to Poulenc’s soaring “Ave Maria,” or from long-time PEBCC collaborator Mark Winges’ “Fog and a God” to Melissa Dunphy’s stark “Dancing in Buses.”

And I can’t believe I couldn’t squeeze in Emily Dickinson!

—Adam Broner