Choral Arts Initiative opened its seventh season Sunday at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach with a carefully planned and proficiently executed concert of music by living composers. The program, a note said, was an invitation to listeners “to imagine a world that expresses and is defined not by privilege and hierarchy, but by equality, empathy, and love.” That’s a tall order for any single concert to achieve, but one had to admit that one’s thoughts ran along those lines as the afternoon progressed.
The 22-member ensemble, led by artistic director Brandon Elliott, makes living composers its focus. (They’ve performed 18 commissions so far, with more to come this season.) As such, that elusive thing that every classical concert strives for — relevancy — seems to come easy to the group. It’s not exactly rocket science, of course; play the music of today’s composers and your concert automatically becomes more germane. The trick is not to scare away listeners in the process.
This isn’t quite the problem it can be with other forms of classical music. Choral music is still very much a thriving art form, reportedly the most common form of music making in this country, and still practiced vigorously by amateurs. The avant-garde never took it over completely. Practical music is needed and practical music is composed. Sunday’s program was approachable and directly communicative, only in one case musically challenging.
It didn’t hurt that Elliott and his singers, professional freelancers, made it all sound polished and glowing. Everything was turned out handsomely, well blended and balanced, alertly rhythmic and gracefully lyrical. St. Mark’s proved an excellent acoustical space, warm yet clear, not too reverberant. The sensitive ear was only bothered at times by the room’s air conditioning system — its whoosh washed out the singers’ delicate pianissimos.
The concert began with a processional, as the Alliance singers streamed in from the back and around both sides singing the hymn “It Singeth Low in Every Heart.” Like this opening offering, the rest of the program would be sung a cappella save for the final two numbers, when a piano joined in. Jake Runestad’s impressive “Why the Caged Bird Sings” (the text from “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar) came next, its rich tonal harmonies slipping into peppery dissonances. The word painting could be striking, as when the word “beats” was repeated in a rhythmic pattern that evoked the sound of a bird’s wings beating against the side of a cage.
Jennifer Higdon’s “Invitation to Love” (also on a text by Dunbar) was more straightforward but also lovely, gently limning phrase by phrase, syllable by syllable in rich, homophonic style. Dominick DiOrio’s “Down Deep,” in six short movements, took its words from brief utterances of the Little Rock Nine as well as a judge (Henry Woods) involved in a school desegregation case. The movements were aphoristic and single-minded, the whole a pithy punch at racism.
Ted Hearne’s “Privilege,” in five short movements, examined and questioned the idea of privilege in our society, including the composer’s own. The texts, sometimes cryptic, sometimes clear, were by Hearne and David Simon, with the finale being an English-language setting of a Xhosa anti-apartheid song. Hearne’s piece is in a jagged style, with short phrases repeating and pulsing urgently and driving the songs. In “casino,” those repeated sounds created the sense of coins dropping into a slot machine and fruits spinning. At the end of “we cannot leave,” the Xhosa song, the singers left the stage individually a la Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, but kept singing sustained notes in a far-flung chord, spreading the word throughout the house.
David Brunner’s inspirational setting of Langston Hughes’s “I Dream a World” and Jeffrey Derus’s elegant arrangement of “It Singeth Low in Every Heart” (the second version on the program) were also heard.
Not all was to taste. “Someone Like You” from the Broadway musical “Jekyll & Hyde,” with smooth tenor Stephen Amundson as keening soloist, seemed like cheesy pop compared to its surroundings. Craig Johnson’s arrangement intertwining “I Love You” (Randy Stonehill) and “What a Wonderful World” became too treacly by half.
Elliott led it all unobtrusively and offered brief, informative remarks between numbers. The concert lasted a mere 68 minutes by my watch and eliminated intermission. Yet another good idea from a group that appears to have plenty of them.