Performing Art in the Trump Era: An Example from Seattle Pro Musica

Anxiety for the future of music, faith and humanity was fundamental to Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, the capstone to a varied night of musical transcendence and reflection at St. James Cathedral.

Posted on March 03, 2017, 8:30 am
14 mins

Since 1987, she has presided over one of the finest choral collectives in the competitive, choral-rich Northwest: Seattle Pro Musica. Her musical sensibility is ideally matched to the transportive a cappella soundscapes in which her singers excel. On top of that, Karen P. Thomas has an enviable knack for creating programs that cohere while offering enough variety to surfeit a hungry, curious musical appetite. (That’s an art in itself, one too often taken for granted in our era of casual iPod curation.)

No wonder that Thomas has been such a welcome, reassuring presence in Seattle’s music scene for decades. (Also something that tends to be taken for granted.) All of these qualities were abundantly on display this past weekend when she led Seattle Pro Musica in two performances of a program at St. James Cathedral that culminated in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

I caught the second of these performances, on Sunday—which means that while the rest of the world was being scandalized by the bizarrely flubbed announcement of Best Picture during the Oscar ritual, we happy listeners in St. James were allowed a respite from the absurdity that is becoming the signature of daily life in America.

That isn’t to say that this was a concert devoted “merely” to otherworldly music, though much of it was transcendent in conception and execution alike.

More and more, performing arts organizations today seem to be finding themselves compelled to renounce escapism and to engage the unsettling reality of life in the Trump era. That’s done not by preaching but by underscoring what art does best. Last month the Seattle Symphony even offered a free impromptu concert to lodge an artful protest against the new administration’s anti-immigrant policies.

Not a Pipe Dream

For her program with Seattle Pro Musica, Karen Thomas found inspiration in the final line Bernstein set in his Chichester Psalms (from Psalm 133): “Behold how good, how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.” And that’s no touchy-feely pipe dream (anymore than is the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth, despite misinterpretations to the contrary). It is certainly not the case in Bernstein’s setting, which shrewdly pits the promise of peace and fulfillment against the “raging nations” and ongoing violence.

In her introductory notes, Thomas explained the program’s first half assembled music expressing visions of peace. It was a carefully assembled smorgasbord of shortish works and a longer composition centered on the quest for social justice. The themes of these opening works found their culmination in Chichester Psalms, “which speaks so eloquently of humanity’s capacity for compassion and tolerance.”

The outlay of numerous short compositions also allowed the different subgroups of SPM to shine. Seattle Pro Musica actually comprises three smaller performing ensembles within its ranks: a chamber ensemble of male and female voices known as “Vox”; and two elite groups of women (sopranos and altos) and men (tenors and basses), respectively called “Chroma” and “Orpheon.” The Sunday program started with a male ensemble, then moved on to the counterpart female ensemble, before all 80 voices of SPM joined together.

These varied distributions, along with the choice of compositions, naturally enhance the sense of variety in choral texture and flavor as the program proceeds. Most were by living composers. (The choral music scene tends to be more favorably disposed toward what people are writing nowadays than most concert halls and opera houses.) The brief opening piece, for example, was by the thirty-something Norwegian-born, Manhattan-based composer Ola Gjeilo, who has become a superstar in the choral scene today.

Remaking the Past

Having just visited the intriguing exhibit of Tabaimo’s art of “Utsutsushi” at Seattle Asian Art Museum, I couldn’t help thinking of that untranslatable concept involving a pre-existing work and a new “appropriation” of it. In his setting of Ubi caritas, Gjeilo alludes to the translucent setting of that classic text by French composer Maurice Duruflé—not by obvious quotation but by “echoing the form and dynamic range” of his forebear, as Gjeilo puts it.

Several settings from the program were of texts set by composers countless times across the centuries, such as the Lux aeterna by American choral personality Brian A. Schmidt. For all the antiquity of the words, though, Schmidt’s setting was appealingly straightforward, unfolding in one extended breath.

The oldest composer represented was Anton Bruckner, who complemented his legacy as one of the great symphonists with choral music nurtured by his study of the Renaissance past. His motet Os justi (sung by the full-scale SPM), which dates from the time of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, was a serene highlight. The composer Nico Muhly once told me he especially loves this piece: “It’s like all of Bruckner condensed into a few minutes.”

Seattle Pro Musica at Saint James Cathedral led by Karen P Thomas

Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon, courtesy of Seattle Pro Musica.

Choir as Orchestra

With singers as expertly trained as Seattle Pro Musica, the unaccompanied human voice is capable of a genuinely orchestral richness and variety of expression. I noticed this, too, in the two samplings of the work of Bern Herbolsheimer, the prolific Seattle-based composer who died last year. Thomas included his music for the short, ancient Anglican prayer O Lord, increase my faith—which became the germ for Herbolsheimer’s large-scale St. James Mass for Peace. In As water ascends to a cloud (his setting of a Rumi poem), solo soprano Jenny Spence lofted above the assembled choir and sparkled with gemlike precision.

The sonic balance of that picture could be taken as a representative sample of the aesthetic Thomas elicits from her singers. It’s above all an elegant, refined sonority that lends itself to careful shaping of phrasings and the most nuanced dynamic shading, so that harmonies glisten with ethereal clarity.

This was especially apparent in their expertly paced rendition of Die Onse Vader, South African composer Zander Fick’s Afrikaans setting of the “Our Father.” In contrast to the prosaic hardiness of the familiar text, Fick’s music builds in ecstatic waves that evoke the Promised Land, for a moment, here on earth.

Another vision of that ideal place—or is it a perfect moment?—was conveyed in the unaffectedly touching arrangement that Karen Thomas—also an accomplished composer—made of the spiritual Deep River.

The women’s choir of Chroma gave the world premiere of a work that SPM commissioned from Hungarian composer Levente Gyöngyösi (who was born in Romania in 1975). Laudate pueri, Dominum showcased Chroma’s remarkable flexibility, the music’s rhythmic hooks spiced with piquant rhythms. The Latin text seemed as up to date as the most trendy pop song lyrics.

St. James Cathedral Organist Joseph Adam provided accompaniment for Francis Poulenc’s marvelous Litanies à la Vierge Noire, in which the gay French composer reconnected with his Catholicism after an epiphany following the loss of a close friend in a horrific auto accident. The choir’s attention to diction paid some lovely dividends here in particular.

The Liberation of James MacMillan

Adam played a couple of solo organ interludes by the leading contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose Cantos Sagrados occupied the program’s second half, alongside the Bernstein. MacMillan is a fascinating and complicated figure: He’s a deeply religious Scottish Catholic who has become skeptical of the aftereffects of modernism in art.

“The case for modernism has been undermined by the flow and permanence of tradition,” he once wrote, “and many other things that [classic postwar modernists] didn’t see either as important or effective in the making of the modern world.”

Hailing from a working class family, MacMillan has undergone a not-unfamiliar shift from young upstart with revolutionary leanings to a conservative and highly respected cultural figure. His large-scale symphonic works reveal a brilliant imagination, and his writing for the stage benefits from a powerful dramatic sensibility that’s apparent in Cantos Sagrados from 1990.

But if MacMillan has since distanced himself from the radical Liberation Theology that inspired the early Cantos Sagrados, there’s no mistaking the passion and artistic power awakened by that impulse here.

Liberation Theology refers to the marriage of Christian social justice ideas with activist concern for the struggle of the oppressed that became especially prominent in Latin America in the later 20th century. Cantos Sagrados presents a triptych of poems (two by Ariel Dorfman and one by Ana Maria Mendoza) in tandem with traditional devotional texts in Latin. This sets up an exchange between the timelessly sacred and the urgent needs and injustices of the contemporary secular world—from “disappeared” political prisoners to the aftermath of colonial violence.
In the performances led by Thomas, MacMillan’s settings were compact miniature dramas, each tense moment reverberating with maximum impact. Adam’s bold organ harmonies added further splashes of color to these already busy canvases.

Pop-Serious Bernstein

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms were initially to be called Psalms of Youth. He was commissioned to write them in 1965, during a sabbatical from his duties conducting the New York Philharmonic. They are a product of his 1960s anxiety over the future of music, the future of faith, the future of humanity.

Like the MacMillan work, the Psalms are also structured as a triptych, with the middle part, West Side Story-ish in manner, providing the most theatrical contrasts of mood and implication. Thomas homed in on the Bernstein magic of wresting a unifying voice from an eclectic cornucopia of reference points. The score opens with an echo of Mahler’s grandiose choral Eighth Symphony, plants a few jazzy earworms, and nods to Bach’s reassuring Lutheran chorales, all while setting the Hebrew syllables of David’s Psalms.

Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica are old hands at working the tricky St. James reverb, though the particular instrumental combo they used for this performance—harp and percussion, along with Adam at the organ—obscured some of the most vigorous choral passages. Bernstein’s vibrant rhythms sprang fully to life. The multi-talented boy soprano Alex Zuniga contributed beautiful solos to “The Lord is my Shepherd” central number.


Next up in Seattle Pro Musica’s season is a concert featuring the organization’s small ensembles (beyond the sky on March 18 and 19)
and a season finale devoted to the anti-war, Whitman-inspired cantata Dona nobis pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams on May 18 and 19.

Featured photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon, courtesy of Seattle Pro Musica.

Thomas May writes about the arts for a wide variety of publications. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader and he blogs at www.memeteria.com.