Review of Cantilena's Concert:Divine, Deranged,
and "Uncomfortable Truths" in Music about Mothers
Reviewer: Mary Wallace Davidson
program from this concert
“Music about Mothers, from the Divine, to the Deranged” Such
was the title of the program on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May
9) by Cantilena, under the direction of Allegra Martin, performing
at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington;
Joshua T. Lawton, organist at the First Congregational Church
in Natick, was the competent piano accompanist. Cantilena was
originally founded in 1968 as the Cambridge Chorale. A dozen
years later it became a women’s chorus under the direction
of Kenneth Seitz, (who stepped down last year), but the name
change did not occur until 2000. The chorus now numbers about
30 and focuses on music originally written (not arranged) for
women’s voices. This is Allegra Martin’s first season
as director, and programming is her strong suit. Instead of a “holiday
concert” this past winter, she concentrated on music of
Scandinavian composers’ rich choral tradition in a program
of “Northern Lights.”
Given the title, the primary interest for this concert was in
the well-chosen poetry. The settings of the introductory liturgical
texts were by Bobby McFerrin (“23rd Psalm,” dedicated
to his mother — with changes in gender of pronouns), Francis
Poulenc (“Ave Maria,” from Dialogues des Carmelites),
Maurice Duruflé (“Tota pulcra es,” the second
of his Quatre motets), and Gabriel Fauré (“Ave Maria”).
The other poems were by Francisco X. Alarcón, Rachel Barenblat,
Rudyard Kipling, Isabel MacMeekin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes,
and Ann Kikelly. The composers setting these were Roger Bourland
(excerpts from his Alarcón Matrigals, Michael J. Veloso
(Letters to Little Bean), Eric Whitacre (“The Seal Lullaby”),
Irving Fine (“Caroline Million,” from The Choral
New Yorker), Gwyneth Walker (Mother Earth — Songs of a
Strong Woman), and Zae Munn (“Grandma’s Alleluia,” and “The
Stove”). Complete texts, with translations as needed, were
provided, as were excellent program notes by Ms. Martin. As she
wrote, “Today’s program will acknowledge both the
transcendent aspect of motherhood and the occasionally uncomfortable
day-to-day truths.” A large audience comprising mostly
women resonated warmly to the point as the concert proceeded.
In many ways the loveliest was the first: Bobby McFerrin’s.
The singers entered the room by surrounding the audience. The
Psalm setting was in the manner of Anglican chant, in that each
verse was broken into two segments of harmonic change with melodic
movement only at the end of each to settle into the cadence.
The close harmonies were “easy listening” (this piece
appeared on his Medicine Man recording in 1990) and rang beautifully
among the audience in this “surround sound” setting.
Cantilena has worked closely with Roger Bourland over the years;
this time their choice was two lyrical but angular works about
grandmothers. The centerpiece was a commissioned work by Boston
composer Michael J. Veloso setting two poems from a cycle of
eight poems, Letters to Little Bean, written by Rachel Barenblat
during her first successful pregnancy. The first poem, written
early on, expresses fear of miscarriage; the second, written
near the end, “blends anticipation and excitement with
self-doubt.” Both Veloso and Barenblat are close friends
of the conductor, probably from their alma mater, Williams College,
and the chorus had met “Little Bean” (a.k.a. Drew)
the day before (according to the poet’s blog), so there
was definitely a feeling that this was a family affair.
Irving Fine’s “Caroline Million” (Isabelle
MacMeekin), with piano accompaniment, was certainly the liveliest
of the lot. “Caroline Million is 100 years old – She
feels pretty fine but her feet are cold.” The rollicking
rhyme pervades the musical texture. Similarly Granma’s
Alleluia by Zae Munn (Ann Kilkelly), a long poem about a grandma
who insists on taking a long train ride alone, is constructed
over a constant rhythmic ostinato, “the train, the train,
the train,” &c. Finally, “The Stove,” by
the same creators, though not lively musically, conjures up a
vigorous visual image as a mother pounds her stove to bits with
a sledgehammer. Again, much is made of the rhythmic repetition, “into
bits.” Perhaps the most moving was Gwyneth Walker’s “Mother
to Son,” set to the poem by Langston Hughes from The Weary
In spite of this inventive programming, there was a sameness
about the music that is hard to explain. Some of it “goes
with the territory” of a concert for all women’s
(or men’s) voices — that is, the sameness of tessitura.
The chorus seemed well-rehearsed, animated, focused on the conductor,
and well disciplined. They always sang in tune, and their diction
was good (although the printed texts were certainly necessary).
Allegra Martin is young, no more than four years past her studies
at Westminster Choir College with the eminent Joseph Flummerfelt.
Her conducting style is calm, with movement only in her hands,
arms, and facial expression, and a telling flick of the wrist.
I wish her well as she bravely makes her way in Boston. Clearly
she has a great deal of musical intelligence going for her.
Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe,
Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She
now lives in the Boston area.