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Cantori New York and PRISM Saxophone Quartet join to bring new music, new ideas to U.S. shores
by Cabe Franklin for Vocal Area Network
Posted February 25, 2007

Cantori and PRISMTwo venerable innovators of Northeast chamber music performance will join forces this March to present a weekend of concerts introducing new music to American audiences. Cantori New York and the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, each of which has won an ASCAP award for Adventurous Programming, will present the U.S. premieres of three works for choir and saxophone in performances on March 10 (New York) and March 11 (Philadelphia). The shows will mark the first collaboration between the two groups.

The genesis of the shows lay in the relationship between Cantori New York and one of the featured composers, the Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür. Cantori delivered the U.S. premiere of Tüür's Requiem in June 2003, a performance The New York Times called "strong and distinctive." Tüür, winner of the Cultural Prize of Estonia in 1991 and 1996, soon became interested in Cantori bringing another of his pieces to America; specifically his Meditatio for choir and saxophones. The project was eventually put on hold due to restrictions on the piece (it was commissioned by and for a saxophone ensemble in Europe), but when those restrictions recently expired, Cantori Director Mark Shapiro sprang into action.

"It had a lot to do with him and having had such a great experience with the Requiem," says Shapiro. "You can just feel with a composer when he has something to say. Tüür really has something to say about the human condition and what we should be feeling about it. It's what art is supposed to be for."

Shapiro sees Cantori's role as an ensemble as more than presenting new music. In adding to the group's repertoire, he looks for pieces that allow listeners to connect with new voices and new ideas. This makes the choir a channel for opening a window onto other ways of thinking -- not just for audiences, but for the ensemble itself. "It's always stimulating to be in contact with a mind like this," Shapiro says of the Cantori singers' work with the new Tüür piece. "You kind of have to get inside his head to be able to learn it."

Erkki-Sven Tüür is perhaps especially well-suited to play the role of 21st century cultural ambassador. Born on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa, Tüür attended the Tallinn Academy of Music and became widely known in his twenties when his band In Spe became one of the most popular progressive rock bands in Estonia. In the mid-1980s Tüür left In Spe to concentrate on composition, and after the advent of perestroika he found an audience in the west. His work has been widely performed throughout Europe and he continues to explore new ways to illuminate the human condition.

Joining Tüür on the program are two other European composers, Hugi Gudmundsson of Iceland (currently living in Denmark) and Giya Kancheli of the Republic of Georgia (currently resident in Belgium). Both composers recently wrote works for choir and saxophones, which were well-received in Europe (Gudmundsson's Adoro te devote was nominated for the Iceland Music Awards 2005), making them the perfect counterweights to Tüür's composition.

The three composers respond very differently to the sound of the saxophones, says Shapiro. "In the Kancheli it's very much a folk influence. For Gudmundsson the four saxes have an old-world feel -- very reedy and fourth-based, almost medieval," he says. "Whereas Tüür responds to the rock aspect -- they just kind of wail away." Regarding the vocals, the composers again take different approaches. For Tüür, the words are at the heart of the piece, and as such he takes care of his singers, says Shapiro. "A lot of what he does make sense. The vocal lines -- even if the pitches are somewhat unexpected -- have a quality of flow and line in how the phrases are developed. They start short and then get longer; they're very organic, very human."

"That said, the Kancheli is a very easy listening kind of piece," Shapiro continues. "The language used more for its sound than anything else, and it's beautiful in its own way."

"I've been thrilled that people like it. You can really feel the excitement in the room," says Shapiro of the choir's experience with the show's material so far. "The world has changed so much in the past few years. A lot of what made Cantori Cantori was the desire to dig deep in the face of that, and to connect with composers who have ideas. The feeling of encountering another culture is very powerful, and we're excited to share that feeling with our audiences."

For more information on the March 10 and 11 concerts, visit www.cantorinewyork.com.

Cabe Franklin is a former singer and board member of Cantori New York.

Content Contact: Cabe Franklin.
Revision Date: February 25, 2007.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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