New Amsterdam Singers Premieres Perera
by Leonard Lehrman
Clara Longstreth's New Amsterdam Singers, celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, is an impressive group of 72 I hadn't had the opportunity to hear since they did a piece of mine on an Alliance for American Song concert 25 years ago. Thanks to an invitation from composer Ronald Perera, (b. 1941), I got to hear both of the lovely recordings they released on Albany (American Journey, 1993 and Island of Hope, 2003) and their "As Nature Wakes" concert at Church of the Holy Trinity March 7 (& 9), 2008. The title derives from Perera's piece, a cycle accompanied by piano quintet (the Lark Artists) that closed the program, entitled "Why I Wake Early," on 8 poems by Mary Oliver (b. 1935), in its N.Y. (not world, as the printed program mistakenly said) premiere, a co-commission by NAS and The Chatham Chorale.
Beginning in a tentative, exploratory manner, held together by a wedge motif (C-D-Bb-E), the textures quickly become ravishing, with very slight dissonance resolving to sweetness. Major 7th chords almost in pop style are punctuated by a sustained solo piano chord, like a small splash in tonal water. String harmonics with rising pizzicati culminate in a white-note fugue on the phrase "The dream of my life." Movements 4 & 6, for women and men alone, respectively, set up an exciting tension. The movement between them, in lydian with a lowered seventh, focuses on the key phrase of the whole cycle: "What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven," climaxing on a major chord, fortissimo, with a pianississimo afterchord. In the finale, I felt the setting of the word "warm" in the phrase "warm touching" was just a bit too quick, and urged the composer and conductor to make a slight adjustment when they record it. Otherwise, a virtually perfect and perfectly beautiful setting of marvelously evocative poetry.
To balance the Perera, Longstreth selected short, lush vocal works by Jiri Laburda (b. 1931), Samuel Barber, Antonin Dvorak, and Matthew Harris (b. 1956), including the latter's quasi-bebop setting of Housman, a reggae Yeats, and the N.Y. premiere of 3 of his William Blake settings, with Chamber Chorus Assistant Conductor Samuel McCoy as tenor soloist. Assistant Conductor David Rentz led 3 of the 7 works on the first half. The first and last movement of Dvorak's Piano Quintet opened the second half, prefacing the Perera almost as an Entr'acte. All the texts were nicely provided, including literal translations side by side with those in German and Czech.