Vocal Area Network logo VAN Feature

Cantori celebrates 20th anniversary with works by Ohana and de Leeuw
by Adria Quinones and John Lad for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 16, 2004

Cantori New YorkFirst, a summoning call sung by women: "Ii yaha..." The stark sound of fifths and octaves, without vibrato. The women are joined by the men, doubled so subtly by vibraphone that you're aware of the change in the choral sound without being immediately able to identify the reason. Then suddenly comes a cry of every singer together with the striking of a mass of percussion instruments--two pianos, vibraphone, xylomarimba, gongs. As the tremendous sound reverberates, the chanting begins...

From the beginning Avoaha grabs your attention. Arresting, startling and highly original, this is Maurice Ohana's final masterpiece, being presented for the first time in the United States by Mark Shapiro and Cantori New York, on Sunday May 23 at 8:00 PM at Columbia University's Miller Theatre, 116th and Broadway. The program also includes Ton de Leeuw's Cinq Hymnes, an extraordinarily beautiful, meditative work. Scored for chorus, two pianos and numerous percussion instruments, the concert is an exploration of the unexpected--and the perfect way for Cantori to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Ohana describes Avoaha as a ceremony surrounding a fighting ritual, "as if in religious celebration." The ceremony is synthesized from a variety of African and Afro-Cuban sources. Similarly, Ohana's musical references are reflective of not only his own heritage--Spanish and African--but of the history and journey those musics made, into the Americas and back to Europe. There are passages marked "spiritual," "rumba," "cantus firmus," but it would be a mistake to take these markings too literally. Ohana did not imitate or re-create these forms; he was inspired by them to create his own. Performers are instructed to play "like a carillon," or to sing "in the style of a Gregorian chant," or "with the tone of a Negro spiritual" (markings translated from the French) but what they sing is the composer's unique realization of these images.

Though deeply interested in its history, Ohana's commitment to Afro-Cuban music is rooted in the conviction that it "reconnects with its prehistoric sources, sources which still flow through every human being's subconscious" and does so through pure sound. As if to emphasize the point, he provides brief descriptions for each movement (e.g. "To the Gods of Wind and Thunder") but pointedly declines to translate the African dialect texts. The fundamental feeling is to be conveyed by the music itself; words (or even program notes?) are not required. The sharp articulation of the text is more important than the meaning of the words as the voices become part of the percussion band.

Ohana uses a wide variety of pitched and unpitched percussion instruments to produce an amazing range of timbres. When the instruments play rhythmically together with the voice parts they often sound almost like additional voices joining the chorus to enhance its overtones and enrich its sound. A collector of percussion instruments for much of his life, Ohana is amazingly imaginative in joining struck objects together with singing voices in ways that transcend the obvious differences between these methods of sound production and enable them to participate equally in the creation of spectacular resonances.

Ton de Leeuw's Cinq Hymnes (1986) take us to another world of intriguing harmonies and expression of mystical spirituality. The texts are selected from the sacred poetry of Kabir, a 15th century Indian musician and mystic, translated into French.

In each of the Cinq Hymnes the voices and instrumental parts have quite distinct roles. The first hymn is for chorus and two pianos; the second and fourth are a cappella. In the third and the fifth the chorus and pianos are augmented by other percussion instruments, including tom-toms, gongs and crotales, an antique pitched cymbal.

De Leeuw uses percussion sounds to create a meditative spaciousness, as in the third hymn when they evoke distant chimes, and at the very beginning of the piece when the pianos repeatedly striking a single note in unison with the tenor voices on the same pitch become an extraordinarily powerful expression of unity. Yet much of the beauty and interest in the music is to be heard in its unusual harmony, and the two a cappella hymns are perhaps the most fascinating of the piece. De Leeuw's modal harmonies sustain long lines, almost reminiscent of Josquin. There is uncanny sense of natural, even relentless progression in the polyphony, yet it sounds fresh and full of surprising turns that go well beyond the diatonic. At times, especially in the fourth hymn, "Silence", closely-voiced chords that might be thought dissonant are heard as moments of resolution and peace.

In the final hymn, "La source de la musique" (The source of music), the beat of the drum drives the music to its climax, then returns faster, and finally dies away. It is gentle, regular and strong, like a heartbeat. Within this musically deep and highly spiritual piece, it does as much to reconnect the listener with the subconscious prehistoric sources of music as anything on the program.

Tickets are available at online at cantorinewyork.com/current -- click on Buy Tickets Now. Adults: $25; students/ seniors: $20. Discount tickets for New York Choral Consortium group members are available the day of the concert. Contact info@cantorinewyork.com for more information.

Adria Quinones is president of Cantori New York and a regular writer on music. John Lad is a freelance string player specializing in contemporary music who writes frequently on tai chi chuan. This is their second article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Adria Quinones and John Lad.
Revision Date: May 16, 2004.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

 Vocal Area Network logo