The Thirteen Perform at VWU
Hofheimer Theater, February 9, 2018
Review by John Campbell

A program titled “From Tree to Shining Tree” was presented by The Thirteen—twelve singers and Artistic Director Matthew Robertson. Five of the singers returned from their last concert here in October, 2016 and seven others rounded out the dozen. The singers, drawn from the world’s finest ensembles—Chanticleer, Seraphic Fire, and Conspirare, to name a few—gathered for several days of intense rehearsal to prepare for a short concert tour from February 8 – 11. Their 2017-18 concert season includes twelve performances in seven states.

The concert was organized in four groups of songs with the goal of emotionally moving from despair toward hope, ending on “a clear, blue morning.” Of the fourteen selections, fully one-half were by living composers. The others were drawn from the previous 500 years of the choral literature. The opening song is a contemporary setting by Williametta Spence (b. 1932) of an ancient text by John Donne (1572-1631) that sets the tone for this musical exploration of nature. The sonnet At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners contrasts Donne's desire to hear the last trumpet's call for death and destruction from Revelations (Holy Bible) with a prayer that he has used his time wisely while on earth. The harmonic blend of the chorus was outstanding.

Robert Ransey (1590s-1644) set his own text, Sleep, fleshly birth, with vocals soaring toward heaven. Remote in phrasing, Ransey's words focus on beautiful things like flowers, sweet youth and soft peace to console us after an opening verse using creeping dissonance to portray loss through death.

The Night is darkening round me by Tonu Korvits (b. 1969) is a setting of Emily Brontë's bleak story of being frozen in place during a furious storm. The auditory space created around the soloist, mezzo-soprano Caroline Olsen, offered appropriately rough vocal blends and a humming ending. The rich, full sound of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Letztes Glück captures the bittersweet faith that winter will pass and spring will return. The poem was written for Brahms by his friend Max Kalbeck.

The next set paired the soaring sense of floating in The Blue Bird set by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) (text Mary Coleridge) with David Lang's (b. 1957) by fire, the most engaging music thus far. The highly dissonant, spiky harmonies of baritone Robby Eisentrout's deep voice versus soprano Elizabeth Bates contrast texts of an interview of a CIA analyst as quoted by Robert Sheer and Attacking with Fire from Sun Tzu's Art of War. It has a horrendous text on using fire as a weapon of war and a CIA observer watching beautiful pelicans become smoking, twisting and hideously contorted as he witnessed an atomic bomb blast.

We were returned to a tender, delicate scene in The Evening Primrose (text John Clare, 1793-1864) set by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) which was connected without pause to Zefiro torna e'l bel tempo rimena (Zephyr returns and brings good weather). Here Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) set a Petrarch sonnet with its rolling rhythm of joy as spring returns once again. To quote Brian Mummert's excellent program notes: “Monteverdi's florid dancing musical material mirrors this celebration only to yield to sequences of suspension which push at the boundaries of tonality to emphasize the narrator's accumulating pain—his beloved has gone to heaven."

Using a tune and lyrics from the Civil War period, Elegy by David Elder (b. 1986) tells us that looking up into the cosmos is only possible at night. Elder's music creates a sharp contrast with the sopranos' (Elizabeth Bates, Agnes Coakley, Allie Faulkner) sweet sung words, a recital of a hymn of nearness to God. There are unpredictable breaks in choral lines with words that disappear into a hum. We got the composer's point. Following this was a sensuous setting of Sappho's poem Piena sorgeva la luna (The full moon rose) set by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) where a vocal melisma slowly builds to a dramatic climax in a ceremonial scene that seems almost supernatural. All voices were engaged in the rich sound of this early music by Walter Lambe (1450-1504). His setting of Stella caeli (Star of Heaven) is a prayer to Mary for protection from the black plague, then ravaging one-fifth of the population of London.

Conductor Robertson spoke to us about the importance of live music, thanking Sandi Billy for making it happen at Virginia Wesleyan University (this was the third time in the past several years that The Thirteen has performed here). The ensemble then sang Sandi's favorite hymn: This Is My Father's World, arranged by Eriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977). Allie Faulkner sang the text set to a traditional melody that celebrates the life of a minister who often walked, telling his wife that he was going out to see the Father's world. Next we heard Earth Song composed by Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) who wanted to express his own longing for peace. Dolly Parton (b. 1946) had the last word in Light of a Clear Blue Morning. Her words and music, set as a spiritual by Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962), encourages optimism in the face of both joy and trials.

To conclude, we will close with a remembrance of MD Ridge (1938-2017)—who adored The Thirteen above all other choral groups—by quoting her 2016 review: “They had everything one could possibly ask for: pristine diction, superb phrasing, immaculate intonation, flawless blend, crisp direction and extraordinary musicality.”

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