You Can Sing—But Can You Also Dance, Act?? 

By Paul Hertelendy, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of May 16, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 70

BERKELEY—When does a youth chorus begin to meld with the concept of a dance troupe? The new reality for choruses is not only singing, but also moving about the stage theatrically—not too far from dance choreography.

There are six works on the current program of the Volti chorus, but the one leaving a mesmerizing impression was the mystical “Eternal Echo,” a choral theater piece, played out, not by Volti itself, but by 35 members of the collaborating Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. The scene recalls the village solemnity and walking choreography of the Antony Tudor classic “Dark Elegies” (1937). Both begin with performers seated on stage in somber uniforms and long skirts.

“Eternal Echo” evolves with haunting solos, vocalise and echo effects, as if emanating from an isolated group attempting to make human contact. And then the singers “awaken,” walk in seeming disorientation, and sing texts of the Finnish epic poem “Kalevala.” There are elements of quest, loss, and remoteness in this multi-level work somewhere between music-theater, a pantomime, and wispy voices out of the veiled past recalling Arvo Paert.

This 1999 work by Finnish composer Olli Kartekangas (and choreographer Päivi Jäervinen) skillfully blends distinct art forms in hybrid fashion, suggesting a provocative vein for other artists to develop. The wonder here, as seen and heard May 13, is that the young singers, ranging up to about 15 years of age, could bridge the art forms so effectively. Their having memorized the texts did away with lugging bulky chorus books about the stage.

Artistic Director Robert Geary, always eagerly embracing innovation, took down his podium and sat in the fourth row with the audience, conducting intermittently.

A similar hybrid was a much larger-scale life-cycle piece, “Painted Lights” by Beijing-born Kui Dong, depicting coming-of-age with both Volti adults and the youth chorus in simultaneous expositions, eventually trading roles on stage. The piece sets off with intentional chaos and children’s games—beach balls and hula hoops—then encountering discipline, chanting, sustained chords, coherence.

Other works were unaccompanied contemporary and postmodern choruses for Volti, with words and syllables chopped up like a tasty platter of cold cuts. Director Geary told the audience, unlike earlier music (for the church, for instance) when text intelligibility was paramount, now the emphasis is on musical expression at the expense of text comprehension. And all the pieces, composed by Eric Banks, Paolo Longo, John Muehleisen, moved in this direction.

The centerpiece was a world premiere “From Ivory Depths” by Tonia Ko, 27, of Cornell University, some eight minutes in length. It’s a stained-glass window of broken pieces, like a mosaic, built (we’re told) on text fragments of Virginia Woolf prose. That much I had to take on faith. In addition to voices skipping up and down over wide expanses, there were whispers, outcries, speech and babble—all part of the new currency that is contemporary secular choral music.

Director Geary revels in all the novelties and carries them off with conviction, whether his singers are mastering Arabic, Latin, Finnish or—zounds!—even English. His Volti singers, some 20 strong, are clearly an elite group selected by audition over a host of others, drawing some singers so inspired, they commute 40-50 mi. each way to participate.

But if you don’t do either theater or dance, you might not fit in as a triple-threat Volti singer at all.

Volti San Francisco chorus, performing in Bay Area May 13-14. For Volti info: (415) 771-3352, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016

Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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