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Festival Choir: Four World Premieres

Jean Belmont: Sand County
Elam Ray Sprenkle: A Paper of Pins
Helen Exner: Tiller of the Soil
Ryan Carter: The Rainbows of Kee-mae-won

Festival Choir
West High School Choir
Eric Townell, conductor


Celebrating its 25th season and Wisconsin's Sesquicentennial, The Festival Choir under the direction of Eric Townell presented no fewer than four world premieres at the First Congregational Church Saturday evening. The well-attended program also also included two selections performed by the West High School Choir. After its divorce from David Crosby three years ago, it wasn't quite clear how the Festival Choir might fare in the future.

On the basis of this concert, I can say that they are doing well, and obviously undertaking somewhat risky projects, in view of the special fundraising required to support these commissions. Artistically, they were a rather mixed affair.

The major work, Jean Belmont's Sand County, was inspired by text drawn from Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Divided into three movements, the 23-minute work exhibits a sophisticated a capella style involving polytonality and cross-rhythms. The overall intensity and personal ethic embedded in the text were nicely realized in the music, and the performance itself -- the piece is not easy -- was satisfyingly good. Nevertheless, I had a major reservation: it was jarring that the musical score did not observe the rhythms and tonalities of the text selections more faithfully. Throughout the work, the natural breathing places in the text, and more importantly the punctuation of its ideas, were blurred by a kind of run-on sound, creating a kind of breathless phrasing amounting almost to a fear of silence.

The other large work, Elam Ray Sprenkle's settings of four Wisconsin folksongs called A Paper of Pins, was pleasant enough, but compositionally markedly less economical than the Belmont suite. Indeed, folksong is a basically simple art form, and these versions were freighted by what seemed to me excessive artiness, with extended repetitions, echo effects, and an inflated piano accompaniment.

Rather unexpectedly, the two most arresting premieres on the program were both relatively short, and especially remarkable for the young age of their composers, who are high-school students selected in a statewide composition competition jointly sponsored by the Festival Choir and the Wisconsin School Music Association. Tiller of the Soil, by Helen Exner of Shawano, lasts a bit over four minutes and captures in a fairly pop sound the sense of repose at dawn, when as a young girl she walked to school in the exotic birdsong surround of West Africa. It's an attractive piece.

I thought the strongest work in the whole evening was The Rainbows of Kee-mae-won, by Ryan Carter of Waunakee, who took first-prize in the school competition. Using a Native American text that speaks to a rain spirit and a simple but effective harmonic language above a running bass foundation, Carter's five-minute piece explored the gentleness of the text and yet afforded an ecstatic and extraordinary climax as the heavens open: "Softly, softly,/ give drink to the flowers of my Mother/ and carry their colors on the wings of the eagle./ Banners of ribbons across the eastern sky." The work ends reverently with a more subdued but equally inspired close, "Send me your rain feathers from the sky." Quite a large talent, I thought, and a very good performance.

Interesting ventures always involve artistic risks, I think. It should be no surprise -- and not too discouraging -- that some things work better than others. Overall, I think the Festival Choir can be quite pleased with its accomplishments.

Isthmus, March, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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