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Friday, May 16, 2014

Concert Review: In the Belly of the Beast

battle hymns on the U.S.S. Intrepid.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Eyes in the back of his head: conductor James Bagwell.
Photo by Erin Baiano © 2014 The Collegiate Chorale.
For the first New York performance of David Lang's 2009 choral work battle hymns the Collegiate Chorale chose an absolutely unique venue: the hangar deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid. The retired aircraft carrier, moored on the Hudson River and serving as New York's own Sea Air and Space Museum may not seem like an ideal choice for a mostly a capella choral work, but with some clever sound engineering and the leadership of conductor James Bagwell, the performance proved to be a successful one.

With the audience seated facing the starboard side of the enormous vessel, singers were arranged in an unusual fashion. Members of the Collegiate Chorale lined one wall, with the singers of the Manhattan Girls Chorus positioned either behind the audience or (for several songs) in the aisles). This plus the lighting design and Mr. Bagwell's eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head conducting gave the listener a feeling of total sublimation into Mr. Lang's texts, a setting of the words of Stephen Foster, Abraham Lincoln and Union Army officer Sullivan Ballou.

These texts that date from the American Civil War, but battle hymns is a meditation on the cost and madness of war itself. It owes something in spirit to Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, although the lack of an orchestra makes the work more intimate. There is something ritualistic and frightening about the work's opening, a chorale on the Stephen Foster song "I'll be a soldier." Led by three young sopranos, the Manhattan Girl's Chorus marched into their places, their serious faces and small voices echoing the cries and barked orders that once resounded in this very space.

In each of the five songs, Mr. Lang chops words into sentence fragments and even syllables, recalling the minimalist voice settings of early John Adams. Sullivan Ballou's letter is reorganized alphabetically, rebuilt into an abstract text that is nonetheless moving in its anguish. The use of space is also important: voices come from overhead, from behind or off to the sides although much of the sung part is concentrated on a hand-picked central chorus. the music is immersing, with the talented voices of the Chorale crystal-clear in the dim light. The use of heavy acoustical curtains around the hangar bay eliminated echo and created a claustrophobic, studio-like atmosphere for the hour-long performance.

The most powerful part of the performance was "as I would not be a slave so I would not be a master", a protracted setting of two lines from the pen of Abraham Lincoln. Here, the late President's words becomes a protest and a motivation for war at the same time. A slow crescendo from the chorus climaxed with the rat-a-tat-tat of a military drum. The drummer, Brendan Ko, moved throughout the house as he beat the time, giving the listener the unsettling feeling of the approach of enemy troops, and providing a different listening experience for everyone in the audience based on where they happened to be sitting.

In the finale, Mr. Lang substituted his own lines for Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" against a hushed background of murmured voices, the original theme sung so slowly by the children's choir that the melody seems to vanish in mid-air. The effect as the song simply stopped and the hangar deck blacked out, was like the falling thud of a heavy axe: simple, effective and brutal.

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