Classical music review: Ember touches the heart, honors veterans
By GWEN OREL
During “Thriving through the Years: Wisdom from the Foxhole,” presented by Ember, the vocal ensemble of Schola Cantorum on Hudson, Sunday night, Gene Gitelson asked all the veterans in the house to stand up.
Then he asked all of the children and family members of veterans to stand up.
It wasn’t long before everyone was standing.
“The definition of who a veteran is, is someone who had a blank check, payable to the United States of America, up to and including one’s life,” Gitelson said. All Americans cosigned that check, he added.
It was a sober and touching reminder of the costs of war, in a beautiful concert dedicated to honoring veterans, given on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.
Gitelson, who served as a combat infantry lieutenant in Vietnam, is part of the Ember Veterans Task Force.
The concert is the first in Ember’s 2018-2019 season, titled “Coming of Age,” which looks at the lessons learned as we age.
Sunday’s concert also marked the first time Ember performed at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 94 Pine Street, rather than at Immaculate Conception Church on North Fullerton Avenue.
OLMC is a little smaller and more intimate, and a little bit warmer (literally, as in temperature), than Immaculate. Artistic Director and Conductor Deborah Simpkin King staged some of the music so that the singers stood in the outer aisles, so their pure voices were just a few feet away from the performers. The voices so close at hand were dazzling.
“Live the Questions” by Jake Runestad, with a text from Rainer Rilke’s letter to Franz Kappus, had an inspiring, soothing and hymn-like quality.
Having the singers so close to you singing, “The point is to live everything, live the questions now,” made the message urgent.
The smaller size of the church also made the video screen viewable. It would have been too hard to see in the larger hall at Immaculate. Ember showed archival images of World War I during the music and with the lyrics (a lovely touch since even in English it can be hard to understand choral words), and showed clips of veterans talking.
Unfortunately, though it is smaller than Immaculate, OLMC is also rather echo-y, and the clips were close to inaudible. It would help if they were also titled, as the lyrics are.
Dan Forrest’s “Requiem for the Living” was the centerpiece of the concert. It takes the Requiem structure but adds, as King pointed out, phrases about praying for the people singing, not just for the dead. The five-movement piece featured a seven piece orchestra and three soloists. Gabriel Schaff on violin had some striking solos.
In addition to starting the season and beginning a residency at OLMC, Sunday’s concert also marked the introduction of Ember’s first composer-in-residence, Cheryl B. Engelhardt. Engelhardt had two pieces in the program, “The Listening” and “We.” “The Listening” featured some very refined beatboxing. “We” had striking and strange harmonies, resolving to a major chord.
The standout of the evening was American composer Gwyneth Walker’s “Let the Life I’ve Lived Speak for Me.” In the piece, Walker, a composer sometimes compared to Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, repeats a melody and develops a poem so that it is life, friends and love who “speak for me.”
Here, Ember’s concept of including images of soldiers at war to go with lyrics really came home, and more than one person surreptitiously reached for a tissue.
A picture of four young soldiers together for the lyric “Let the friends I’ve made speak for me” was almost unbearably poignant. Did all of them make it home?
And “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” underscored the lyric “Let the love I’ve shared speak for me,” and how patriotism is a great love too:
“Let the love I’ve shared speak for me.
Let the love that I’ve tried to share, and the burdens I’ve struggled to bear,
all this life of joy and care speak for me.
Let the life I’ve lived speak for me.”