Stare at the Sun impressively delivers compelling world premieres

Sun May 19, 2024 at 12:37 pm

By Tim Sawyier

A.J. Keller led Stare at the Sun in a program of contemporary choral music Saturday night at Wicker Park Lutheran Church. Photo: Max Vinetz

The new-music chamber choir Stare at the Sun offered the final program of their season Saturday night at Wicker Park Lutheran Church (to be repeated Sunday). Under the assured leadership of conductor A.J. Keller, the youthful 23-member ensemble, whose mission is to champion the works of living composers, offered accomplished, intricate performances of music written largely in the last three years in a program titled “You Through Me.” Most of the composers were on hand in person to introduce their works.

The first half featured the fruits of Stare at the Sun’s first call for scores, where they solicited manuscripts from composers across the globe to select a handful for performance. Keller and colleagues opened with “Path” (2021) by Xingzimin Pan, the final movement of the composer’s Elegy, a choral suite that reflected the Covid pandemic.

Panexplained that while the first two movements of Elegy plumb raw, angry emotions, “Path”commemorates those that were lost and is meant to provide a “soundspace” for listeners’ sadder responses. The Chinese composer’s brief setting of a poem by Yang Chen is peaceful and hymnlike, with an almost liturgical spirituality that builds to a declamatory climax before receding back to its opening textures and ending on a dissonant question mark.

The two other works on the first half were heard in their world premieres. The first of these was the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (2020-23) by Alissa Voth.

Voth explained that her score has roots in her experience growing up in a Pentecostal faith where speaking in tongues was an aspect of worship. Opening with a bed of wordless vocalise, the words “I take no rest” begin to emerge, surrounded by sibilant hisses, clucks, and glissandi, palpably evoking ecstatic spiritual vocalizations. Voth’s part writing is highly independent, with only occasional moments of unified ensemble, technical challenges the singers of Stare at the Sun met with ease.

The first half concluded with the world premiere of Max Vinetz’s flash flood fiction (2021),another product of the Covid period that had never been heard in live performance. The Texas-born composer’s inspiration, he said, was Houston’s menacingly mercurial weather, and also the inspiring beauty of its Texas skies. Flowing, muddied words begin the movement, over which sustained soprano pitches emerge with clarion clarity. Quickly fluttering “mmm” syllables bestow a shimmering effect. The opening lines of the Rūta Kuzmickas poem it sets—“what moon spread out like mold”—returns periodically like an idée fixe, before closing with a euphoric statement of the poem’s closing lines, “decisively believing in the tactile strength of glass.”

The second half began with Anya Lagman’s Balikbayan (2021-23), a work that explores the composer’s Filipino heritage and whose title refers to a Filipino person returning home after an extended period abroad, she said in her prefatory remarks. Balikbayan has no explicit text beyond the single-word title, and begins with percussive “Ba” sounds that evolve into more sustained textures. Violinist Emily Nash and cellist Veronica Kolegas joined the choir, providing accompanying harmonics and tremolos, which supported periodic lurching tenor wails above the vocal textures. Airy hushing sounds and guttural Ks add to these sonorities as Balikbayan progresses in an episodic fashion.

Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands came next, the evening’s oldest offering, dating from 2016, and the first composer not in the house Saturday. Shaw’s point of departure here is Dieterich Buxtehude’s cantata cycle Membra Jesu Nostri, and she opens with a chant-like movement channeling these 17th-century origins. The ensuing five movements variously treat and reinvent text from Buxtehude’s Ad manus, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, and Shaw’s own poetic interpolations of these.

On display throughout is Shaw’s singularly inventive voice which garnered her a Pulitzer for her Partita for 8 Voices in 2013, with Stare at the Sun doing full justice to the breadth and variety of her vocal demands. Shaw calls for a full string quintet accompaniment, and Nash and Kolegas were joined by violinist Christine Chon, violist Bridget Andes, and bassist Brett Lewis; the chamber group was entirely in sync with Keller and their vocal colleagues as they rendered Shaw’s creative transformations.

The evening concluded with You Through Me, a 2022 score from Alex Berko about the Elizabeth Street Garden in New York’s SoHo. Berko’s work is a response to plans to build affordable housing on the site of the beloved space, and sets a poem co-written by him and Kuzmickas that narrates the experience from the garden’s own perspective. 

Using string quartet accompaniment, Becko begins with subtle instrumental pulsing, before a transparent reflection from the choir begins narrating the park’s perspective on its visitors, which build to more robust, ardent moments, such as on the words “Come back to me.” While various soloists from Stare at the Sun all made impressive contributions throughout the night, tenor Sam Gosby was a standout among these, nowhere more so than in this concluding score.

The program will be repeated 4 p.m. Sunday at Winnetka Congregational Church.

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