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Until the moment she opened the letter that read “son wounded in action, resting comfortably, shrapnel wounds,” Betty Friedmann was strong. But when the dam broke and she wept, I witnessed how fragile yet incredible is the bond between mother and child. So years later, it came as no surprise that women in my pew at First Presbyterian Church would reach for handkerchiefs. The central piece of the second of two concerts, BraveSouls and Dreamers, “a dramatic cantata” in ten sections, with words by Robert Espindola and music by Robert Seeley, was performed by Triangle Gay Men’s Chorus and conducted by John-Philipp Mullinax. Joining the 25 voices were soloists Maurio Hines (baritone) Ryan Chavis (tenor) Catherine Brand (soprano), (Eveyln McCauley in Raleigh), Jim Burnette, Jr. (bass) and a reduced orchestra.
Drawn from the words of great peacemakers (Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and others) the text of BraveSouls and Dreamers, spun into a libretto for a sage, two soldiers, and Mother, is rich and meaningful. Middle-eastern-like melodic passages within a colorful tapestry of harmony and syncopated rhythms yield a contemporary tone.
The program also included several other pieces, all thematically related to the ensemble’s 2008-09 "Peaceable Season." The chorus opened the afternoon program with a call to worship in gorgeous sotto voce with Brian A. Schmidt’s setting of "Lux Aeterna," symbolic of the ancient Requiem Mass.
In conversation, Mr. Mullinax mentioned the challenges of staging BraveSouls; a relatively small chorus on a tight budget led to compromise. Predictably, the string section was realized by organ and piano, for example. Traveling Broadway productions have slashed the size of their orchestras using synthesizers and miniature pit orchestras, a practice that has radically altered the sonic experience. In this performance, the sound produced by the small band of woodwinds was dampened by the altar. And though the sanctuary has lively acoustics that favored the chorus, the soloists were mic’d. Catherine Brand’s heartfelt performance of the poignant “Epitaph” fell short. Despite her best efforts and beautiful lyric soprano voice, the words were lost, a casualty of insufficient amplification. Nevertheless, the message was conveyed; undaunted, the conductor coaxed a strikingly dramatic quality from his committed singers. Unencumbered by written music, the choral sound was full and beautifully balanced.
There were exquisite moments. Bass Jim Burnette, Jr., accompanied by a beautifully rendered English horn obligato, delivered a magnificent solo as Sage in the second movement. And the soldiers’ "The Great Obscenity," sung by Maurio Hines and Ryan Chavis, was moving, articulate and strong.
BraveSouls and Dreamers stands as a notable, thought provoking piece. But it lacks the teeth of Britten’s War Requiem or the hard edge of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Compared to these great works, it comes across as sanitized mirroring of the saccharine news coverage dished out during the last eight years and the self-medicating effect of radio broadcasts of soothing classical music. Nevertheless, with it inspiring text coupled with beautiful lyric melodies, the cantata projects a sense of prayerful gentleness. And from this perspective, the net effect is space to reflect. The audience rewarded the chorus with three standing ovations. It was a fine performance.
*Orchestra: Joe Lupton, piano/organ; Lori Anderson, piano; Brian Muñoz, clarinet/bass clarinet; Robert Burkett, oboe/English horn; Lucy Eckert, flute/piccolo; Emily Rupp, bass (in Durham - at the previous day's performance, in Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, the bassist was Robert Hughes).