Sunday, October 19, 2008

KC Chorale offers tough expressionist rarity on season-opening concert

By Paul Horsley

Sunday’s weather seemed way too beautiful for indulging in 1930s European angst, but I wouldn’t have missed the Kansas City Chorale’s performance of a rare work by Ernst Krenek for all the Chiefs drubbings in the world. Come to think of it, a brisk fall day is the perfect time to think about life’s brevity: Outside Redemptorist Catholic Church, brown leaves were being blown about by a vaguely-too-chilled wind that seemed to forebode winter. But not even all of that could have prepared us for the grisly impact of Krenek’s marvelously titled Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdsichen, whose English translation sounds just as extravagant: Cantata on the Transitoriness of Earthly Things.

It was composed in Vienna in 1932, shortly before the Nazis seized power, and thus its images of war, terror, greed and pestilence seem apt. Ironically, its texts are drawn from 17th-century poets writing about Europe’s horrendous Thirty Years’ War — which as if to bring the impact full-circle can be read today as if they’ve been ripped from the news. (“Thundering guns have devoured all that sweat and toil and diligence have made. … Fresh-spilled blood runs unceasingly through fort and town.”) Under Charles Bruffy’s courageous direction, the Chorale sang it like there was no tomorrow, in its season-opening concert. We can only hope that their record company, Chandos, gets wind of this performance and puts it on disc.

Krenek’s musical language is ferocious, dense, with a chilly elegance: It stitches together Schoenbergian dissonance, Mahlerian post-Romanticism and almost Bach-like “chorales.” A lavishly daring soprano tries to inject sanity (Rebecca Lloyd at her operatic best, with Robert Pherigo on piano), yet the chorus continues to wheedle and sob, growing strident then mournful. The final moment of near-hope is a radiant, sustained apotheosis, like the resigned end to a bloody victory.

The program had begun with Mendelssohn’s Lieder im Freien zu singen (Songs to Sing in the Open Air), a set of six a cappella songs on outdoorsy topics. Sunny and vigorous, they were the perfect foil to Krenek’s tortured cantata — so radically different, in fact, that the juxtaposition seemed almost diabolical. Bruffy and the Chorale delivered them with hearty good taste, and their spare textures were not overwhelmed by Redemptorist’s active acoustics.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes were not so fortunate. This quaint set of “love-songs-set-as-waltzes” could not have felt more out of place than in this enormous, over-decorated wedding cake of a church. Though the smaller, tender moments were poignant, the more vigorous numbers were blurred almost beyond recognition by the church's reverberation. Sometimes a venue unwittingly becomes a part of an artistic experience, positively or negatively. These waltzes are more suited to someone’s living room.

We were fast approaching the two-hour mark when the Chorale began the last piece, The Passing of the Year, by contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove. It seemed prolix, especially coming at the end of such a stuffed-full afternoon. It juxtaposes churning minimalist rhythms — nicely scored for piano yet sounding a tad too derivative (and how about that Stravinsky rip-off in "Ah, Sun-flower"?) — with atmospheric soundscapes that showed sensitivity to the poetry by William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Tennyson and others. Dove creates ingenious devices and he executes them with workmanlike skill, like the interlarding of the line “Lord, have mercy on us” within Thomas Nashe's "Adieu! farewell, earth's bliss!” But he consistently overworks his material, repeating lines of text for no apparent rhetorical or musical reason. Pity poor Emily Dickinson’s tiny “Answer July,” whose pithy wit was obliterated by belabored repetitions that very nearly drove me up Redemptorist’s lavishly outfitted walls.

The concert, which the Chorale calls “One Piano, Four Hands, 24 Voices,” is repeated at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 21 at Church of the Nativity, 3800 W. 119th St., Leawood. For tickets call 816-235-6222 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to