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Monday, Nov. 25, 2013

Giving Thanks with Present Music and Friends

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Caroline Shaw
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The Present Music Thanksgiving concert, an annual community event, took place Sunday at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Five works were performed by featured guest composer Caroline Shaw.

Shaw, a singer herself, has a talent many composers lack: writing for the voice. Her choral works show a love of vocal textures and studied eclecticism, organically incorporating ethnic ideas into more traditional writing. A large chorus, comprised of singers from Arrowhead High School, Carthage College, Pius XI High School and Milwaukee Opera Theatre, presented the deceptively complex Fly Away, filled with fascinating, contrasting ideas. Hearing Voices, the new eight member vocal ensemble conceived by Present Music, sang Sarabande, which has the added touch of swooping hums of undetermined pitch before beautiful harmonies.

Shaw’s impressive and expressive writing for solo voice came through in Cantico delle creature, for soprano, violin, cello and piano. Jenny Gettel’s work as soloist was particularly fine. Shaw herself was a compelling vocal soloist in I’ll Fly Away, with string quartet, borrowing the text and spirit from the old gospel song but with a new melody. The music is American folk through an art music lens.

Shaw was also represented by Punctum for string quartet, which takes disparate ideas into a deliberate and artful jumble, among them the great chorale “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

Composer David Lang was commissioned in 2010 to write I Never, a companion piece to Thomas Tallis’s 40-voice motet Spem in Alium, performed by far more than 40 singers (with more than one singer per part) to marvelous effect, conducted by Present Music Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim. An agnostic prayer found voice in the earnest string quartet To Whom It May Concern: Thank You, by Mark Stewart, which matched the largely vocal/choral program with chorale-like writing.

Things turned a little sentimental for my tastes with the assembled chorus and audience singing the ABBA song “The Way Old Friends Do” in an uncredited arrangement. As is the tradition for this concert, Native American song began and ended the program, performed by the drumming and singing group The Bucks.