La Caccina launched its eleventh season last weekend with a concert called “Extraordinary Machine”. The concert, which included the first half of a two-concert season called “Body+Spirit”, explored what it means to be a physical being in an increasingly digital world. The title relates to how we reconcile the ubiquitous “extraordinary machines” of digital technology with the “extraordinary machine” that is the human body.
There is no better musical way to examine this question than through choral singing, where not only are each singer their own unique machine, but they come together to form a collective instrument that is greater than the sum. of its parts. La Caccina captured this idea through a typically inventive lineup that showcased each of the nine singers and their unique vocal qualities, while showing how seamlessly they can come together.
To add a visual component, the treble set brought in projection designer Camilla Tassi, whose dynamic images matched the mood and content of the musical selections. Although artistic projections have become relatively common in classical concerts these days, Tassi’s projections were particularly well done and not at all superfluous.
The lights in Gottlieb Hall at the Merit School of Music were completely turned off, while fairy lights were artfully strung around the singers’ desks. The moving images were then projected all over the wall behind the singers. This setup created an immersive experience, although the darkness of the room also meant that it was impossible to read program notes or texts during the performance. Thankfully, La Caccina’s diction was largely clear, and art director Carling FitzSimmons’ introductions provided important context, which made it easier to enjoy and understand.
The first section, titled “Generator of Power,” spoke of the human body as an organic machine. The most interesting work in this section is “Begin”, by Alice Ping Yee Ho, which tells the story of Marilyn Bell, the first woman to swim across Lake Ontario. The piece incorporated many non-sung elements, such as “shh” sounds, whistles, clapping, and the tinkling of chimes to evoke the movement of water.
Such a complex piece emphasized the “machine-like” nature of the band, with each part moving independently but in perfect coordination with the other parts, mostly without the aid of a conductor. The only downside was that the applause, which grew in intensity as the piece became more dramatic, obscured the text.
The second section, titled “Perpetual Motion,” featured three work songs from around the world. Arguably the most memorable of the concert’s seven sections, it featured a charming Acadian French folk song about a cow (accompanied by a spoon); a popular folk lullaby from enslaved Africans living along the Colombia-Venezuela border; and an arrangement of “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie” by Huddie Ledbetter, which has its roots in plantation songs and featured choreographed body percussion.
In a pleasing moment of textural variety, soprano Megan Fletcher lent the lullaby “Duerme Negrito” a soft motherly tone with a gentle vibrato that contrasted nicely with the tight harmonies of the accompanying vocals. But it was here and in the Acadian folk song “Marie Madeleine” – the only two foreign-language pieces on the program – that not being able to read the translations was detrimental. Audiences weren’t able to glean the amusing story of the cow sending the narrator flying through a dunghill in “Mary Magdalene” or fully grasp the deep pathos of “Duerme Negrito,” though the singers did does their best to convey the meanings in their performance.
This concert featured three professional premieres, two of which were commissioned by the ensemble. The first premiere was “To Spin the Web” by Jana Heckerman. Although the piece had many ideas, it was unified by the concept of intertwining voices, evocatively captured through random slides over the “n” in the word “spin”.
The two commissions were “Find the Light We Need” by Timothy C. Takach and “All Things Sublime and Colossal” by Ephraim Champion. Champion was this year the composer-in-residence of Hearing in Colour, an organization with which La Caccina has partnered for two years. The goal is to give composers from groups traditionally underrepresented in classical music experience writing for treble ensembles.
Champion came to this assignment as an accomplished horn player but with little experience in writing for voice. In his introduction, FitzSimmons explained how the process was a collaborative process; Champion came with many ideas and a strong sense of what he wanted to do, and the set helped him refine those ideas into an interpretable piece.
The resulting work was quite dense with many different effects and textures. It was the most challenging piece on the program, stretching the ensemble in range and featuring solo moments for each of the singers. The most exposed transitions and sections were slightly shaky compared to the huge stacked chords that buzzed through the air. Overall, the piece was distinctive and promising for the young composer.
But the program wasn’t all cluster chords and complex textures. One of the most amazing moments came at the start of the second period with “Beata viscera” by medieval composer Pérotin. La Caccina’s blend into monophonic Latin sacred chant was impeccable, the nine distinct voices, from earthy low altos to ethereal high sopranos, coming together in one extraordinary machine.
La Caccina’s second and final program of the season will be “Clear Blue Morning” on May 19 and 20, 2023. lacaccina.org
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