review by Janet I. Martineau
MIDLAND -- Sometimes, in a musical score, there comes a section that so moves the soul with its elegance and beauty and the mind with its relevance and intelligence that tears well in the eyes and a lump clogs the throat.
How thrilling, then, that in David Fanshawe’s hour-long “African Sanctus” that section occurs not just once but twice.
Titled “Kyrie: Call to Prayer,” on Sunday afternoon at the Midland Center for the Arts it juxtaposed a recording of an Islamic Imam in Cairo, Egypt, reciting a call to prayer with the live voices of the 59-member Music Society Chorale singing a Kyrie from the Christian Latin Mass.
There was the aural beauty of the two intermixing so well, the emotional thoughts flashing about how these two religions are at war these days, and then the visual addition of slides alternating the artistic beauty of a mosque with a stained glass window in a Christian church.
In a talk-back after the end of the performance, baritone/bass David King said, “To us performing it, it is evidence we live in one world, we are one people, there is one God and we are all in this together.”
And tenor David Aukerman, who also happens to be a Church of God pastor, admitted that section of the 13-part work was a challenge for him theologically but that he came to realize it is saying “there does not have to be violence in our disagreements. There can be differences. We just need to do it peacefully.”
Fanshawe, who died in 2010, was a lifelong vagabond who traveled Africa recording the traditional songs and chants of upwards of 50 tribes. In Egypt, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya.
He then took those recorded songs and chants, composed his own percussion-flavored Latin mass and created “African Sanctus” as an ode to music as the universal language. Midland, in its performance of the work, added a slide show showing those African nations and their people.
In the course of the hour the audience heard cows mooing and frogs croaking, a crackling thunderstorm, wedding music, chants, a lamentation for a dead fisherman, war drums beating in the distance of a desert, refugees singing a song of flight, tiny bells ringing to announce the birth of a son in a tribe, courtship dances, the Latin mass, the Lord’s Prayer as sung by boy soprano Thomas Bolland, and a “Love Song” piano solo performed by Anna Doering as well as the “Kyrie: Call to Prayer.”
It was almost too much to take in -- which sounds were live and which were recorded, should we watch percussionists Tom Ryden and Zoe Peeler who often played more than one instrument at once, oops can’t miss those slides of the African people and nature projected at the side, and oh my gosh those notes hit by soprano soloists Hannah Hupfer, Lynne King and Jean Joslyn are IMPOSSIBLE, but they are doing it.
And, man, wish I could see that pianist (Pam Bourscheidt). She is sounding fantastic.
Hope this never ends. It is groovy, magnificent, the work of a genius...would anyone notice if I got up and danced....what do you mean it’s over.
During the talk back, more than one choral society singer got a little choked up in saying how much the work meant to them, and thanking music director James Hohmeyer “for making us do this.” They admitted they had had reservations, deep ones, and that it was taxing to rehearse.
What made it difficult to perform, and perhaps for some to hear, Hohmeyer said, was Western music, and indeed our lifestyle, is very structured. Every note in its place and held for a set prescribed time on a printed score and performed to the precision of its composer.
African music, by contrast, Hohmeyer said, “is mouth to ear music, unstructured, no tonality, never owned by a composer but passed down generation to generation.”
Imagine, then, merging the two in one piece and making it work -- and thankfully so exquisitely well in Midland under the capable and steady hand of Hohmeyer and, we suspect, sound engineer Heath Hetherington.
Two years ago Hohmeyer and his singers gave us “Visions of Light,” a silent film about Joan of Arc set to a choral work performed live as as film played. We thought back then things could never get much better, despite the fact it was a risky bit of programming that did not exactly fill all the seats.
And then came “African Sanctus,” even more risky and again not filling the seats.
But how much poorer would life be without the opportunity for the singers and for those of us who took a chance on both. We can’t wait to see and hear what Hohmeyer comes up with next.
Oh, and those of you regretting not attending “African Sanctus”...the Saginaw Choral Society has it on its May 2012 schedule.