To mark Memorial Day, the choral ensemble San Diego Pro Arte Voices presented a concert Monday (May 29) at St. Andrew’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach: Disarm Hate—a musical response to gun violence. Artistic Director Patrick Walders chose five new pieces by American composers—some commissioned by Pro Arte Voices—to shed light and bring some depth to a topic that too often screams in headlines, but rarely undergoes thoughtful discussion or analysis.
Scot Hanna-Weir’s “The Wound,” based on the poetry of the late American poet Ruth Stone, deals with the emotional wound of gun suicide for those left behind. Opening with slowly changing, pastel sonic clusters, this unaccompanied choral work gradually revealed Stone’s poetic burden in increasingly forceful declamatory passages.
With its recorded accompaniment of student voices and sonorous chimes, Anthony J. Maglione’s “No More!” aroused memories of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s pioneering electronic collage “Gesang der Jünglinge” from the 1950s. From Maglione’s opening sonic collage the Pro Arte Voices quickly merged into an insistent choral ostinato that used the text “no more!” to protest the ever-increasing number of deaths by gun violence. A forceful, dramatic piece, “No More!” raised its fist against the lives destroyed each year by gun violence.
The Pro Arte Voices polished, driving account of Gregory W. Brown’s double choir “Love (&) Doubt” offered a winning mix of spirited counterpoint and lively, angular themes that constructed the clever architectural puzzle of Kevin Devaney’s two-part poem. A successful and savvy street poet, Devaney wrote his poem in parallel columns, each devoted to one topic of the title, but the poem may either be read downwards as two independent thoughts or across as a rather different and more complex essay. Brown’s use of two choirs achieves these possibilities brilliantly in real time, benefiting from the composer’s sophisticated antiphonal interplay and rich harmonic palette. While the work’s emotional theme fit the Pro Arte Voices’ program theme of “disarming hate,” it would fit in well with any eclectic choral presentation. Professional choirs and university choral ensembles should take note.
Justin Murphy-Mancini’s “3 Tainiai” turned his colleague Alyssa Kai’s rich, confessional poem into an extended serene meditation: three shimmering motets, each introduced with the simple toll of a handbell. His idiom combined the austere harmonic reserve of Arvo Pärt with the time-in-suspension approach that defines the big Messaien organ solos. Pro Arte Voices gave this 14-minute work the buoyant ensemble support it required to draw the listeners into its sacred space.
The singers finally had a chance to flex their musical muscle in Shawn Kirchner’s “Eye for Eye,” an extroverted and very audience-friendly anthem written in the style of a traditional spiritual. In his spoken introduction, Kirchner explained that a simple statement from Gandhi and a few verses from the Christian Scriptures came together in his imagination to provide his text. I wish he had also explained his reasons for choosing to compose in the form of a Negro spiritual. For this listener, it would have addressed the issue of cultural appropriation that lurks in the background when a white composer writes in a tradition that is not his own.
San Diego Pro Arte Voices presented this concert on May 29, 2017, in Saint Andrew’s by the Sea Episcopal Church, 1050 Thomas Ave, San Diego. The next performance by this organization will be performed in the same venue on August 4, 2017, as part of the San Diego Summer Choral Festival.