Tuesday, June 9, 2009

CD review: Composer Crabtree reimagines the cantata, compellingly

Composer Paul Crabtree.

By Greg Stepanich

The Anglo-American composer Paul Crabtree possesses the rare and admirable ability of being able to use the most unlikely artifacts of popular culture and fashion them into highly sophisticated art without mocking the sources or having them sound incongruous.

He has, for example, written a choral song cycle called Five Romantic Miniatures (from The Simpsons), set to lines from Matt Groening's popular cartoon series, including one in which Homer praises Marge's skill at making pork chops. The settings are rich and full, and in a tonal style much like that of Benjamin Britten, though Crabtree's sound world is more eclectic, less sealed-off.

Area audiences have had the opportunity to hear several works by Crabtree through the good offices of Seraphic Fire, the Miami-based professional chamber choir led by Patrick Dupre Quigley. Early in 2007, the choir performed three Crabtree motets (Religion, Sex and Politics), and this past April in West Palm Beach it gave the world premiere of the composer's Sedebat Mater, a cantata written for Seraphic Fire as a contemporary counterpart to the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi.

All of these works -- and the majority of Crabtree's pieces are vocal music -- have the same kind of approach as the Simpsons cycle: A often-whimsical choice of texts filtered through an intellect of formidable erudition, and set to music whose pop and jazz influences are plain but that do not detract from the urgent, highly sophisticated message the composer is trying to impart. It makes for an absorbing experience in the concert hall, and devotees of contemporary choral music in particular would do well to seek him out.

A new disc from Arsis Audio in Boston features two of Crabtree's most ambitious works, cantatas inspired by the Metamorphoses of Ovid that also use recent news events to explore the junction of water, baptism, death, and resurrection in one case, violence and grief in the other. The Metamorphoses of Paul Crabtree features the Manhattan choral group Cantori New York in fluent performances of this pair of cantatas, joined by good soloists and excellent small instrumental ensembles.

Dive! A Water Music, the first cantata on the record, takes as its chief text the Ted Hughes translation of the story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (from Book IV of Ovid), supplements it with parts of an earlier translation, and adds a few lines from The Water Babies, the 1863 Christian allegory by Charles Kingsley that was well-known to earlier generations of children. The entire cantata is dedicated to the memories of the five children of Houston mother Andrea Yates, who drowned them in the family bathtub in June 2001 in an apparent act of postpartum psychosis.

Hermaphroditus, the handsome teenage son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is seized by Salmacis, a randy naiad, by the side of a forest pool. They struggle in the water until they are transformed into one body (hence, hermaphrodite); Crabtree tells this story in an accessible, spiky harmonic style congruent with much contemporary music, and with a wide variety of textures, from Handelian pastoral (the beginning of section 2) to Purcellian pastiche (the Sicut pluviae aria of section 4) and Gounodian apotheosis (section 6), that underline the drama of the story most effectively.

The chorus carries the bulk of the weight for the work's six sections, narrating the action and then interacting with a soloist, countertenor Randall Scotting. He sings well, handling a part full of difficult melismatic lines with strength and commitment. Crabtree scores for his six-piece chamber ensemble -- two percussionists, oboe/English horn, cello, piano/harpsichord, and harp -- with deftness and imagination, demonstrating how much big music can come from small forces.

Crabtree also focuses, as he has in other pieces, on repetition of key text elements, such as dramatic reiterations of the word "motionless," and the return of the cantata's opening line: You cannot be saved until you are cleansed in the water (credited here to "Dennis" Woroniecki, surely a misprint for Michael Peter Woroniecki, the Yates family's controversial spiritual adviser). This device works well as a unifier for the cantata musically and textually, and gives it personality.

The second cantata on the disc, An American Persephone, merges the story of Pluto's abduction of Persephone, daughter of Ceres, from Book V of the Metamorphoses, with two poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and an e-mail from the American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death in 2003 on the Gaza Strip by an Israeli bulldozer. This cantata, which features an instrumental quartet of harp, piano/celesta and two percussion (often marimbas) plus mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson in the solo role, has the same basic ruminative approach as Dive!, although the story (also in six sections) is a bit more violent and the music more hard-edged.

But the essential features are consistent: a warm, fairly plush choral texture in a tonal environment of light jazz-like dissonance, inventive orchestration that emphasizes the soft colors of harp and mallet percussion, and sometimes-florid solo lines that contrast effectively with the chordal profile of the choir. Johnson's dark-honeyed voice is a major asset to the two solos here; her mezzo is well-suited to the somber nature of the music and the words.

Persephone is also impressive as a dramatic document, with the words describing Pluto's rape and abduction of Persephone set to jarring, intense music, to be followed by the hushed grief of the first Millay sonnet --- sung beautifully by Johnson --- which begins Time does not bring relief; you all have lied/Who told me time would ease me of my pain!

These are fascinating, absorbing cantatas, and reward repeated hearings. Of the two, I find An American Persephone the more interesting in part because of the music of the two Millay set-pieces, the second of which is a striking unaccompanied choral setting of a sonnet beginning Not in this chamber only at my birth. The Cantori performances are generally good overall, though there is some harshness and strain in the higher passages for the women, and the recording site -- New York's American Academy of Arts and Letters -- sounds close and very dry, which takes away almost every soft edge.

Crabtree's achievement here is large: He has shown that it is possible to reimagine the cantata in a moving, fresh way, and his example should give other composers a good model for pursuing a similar trajectory. He does, however, share with other highly cerebral composers (John Adams comes to mind) a certain melodic reticence that could keep these estimable pieces from being more than catnip to the clerisy.

The most telling example is that first Millay sonnet, Time does not bring relief. Crabtree beautifully manages the transition to this moment, dropping the accompaniment to a moody murmur in harp and marimba. Over it floats a plain, sad melody that ends with a folksong-like riff at the words "so remembering him."

It's fine writing, and marvelously apt for the words, but it falls just short of what it could be were the melody more distinctive, more memorable. I don't mean that it has to be obvious nor that it should be Puccini, just this: With a more compelling melody, it would be not just moving, but devastating.

This is a minor objection, and doesn't detract from the effectiveness of this music. Crabtree is a quirky but expert composer, and his almost exclusive focus on vocal music means that this part of the American classical portfolio is richer for his efforts, and surely will become more so.

THE METAMORPHOSES OF PAUL CRABTREE, two cantatas by Paul Crabtree; Cantori New York, conducted by Mark Shapiro; with Randall Scotting, countertenor, Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano. Arsis Audio.

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