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Quodlibet Ensemble, 10/1/20

I saw a performance by the Quodlibet Ensemble on 10/4/20 (it was live on 10/1/20). The concert was co-presented by 5BMF, Bariyshnikov Arts Center, Tippet Rise Art Center, and Bay Chamber Concerts.

The program was built around the digital world premiere of a film of “Coming Together,” a piece for narrator and chamber ensemble written by Frederic Rzewski. The text of the piece is a letter by Samuel Melville, an inmate at Attica prison in upstate New York who died during the rebellion in 1971.

The music was intense but on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one. The primary element was the rhythm, which was inventive and changeable, played by twelve string players and anchored by a ceaseless part for electric bass guitar. The text of the letter was central to the piece but I got a little tired of the repetitions.

The film was directed by Pastor Isaac Scott. It mostly featured Zoom-style footage of the players in the ensemble playing their parts but eventually featured them sitting and doing nothing, usually looking despondent. It was an interesting choice to use the musicians as actors. Reginald Mobley performed the narration and there was much footage of him, but he wasn’t reading the piece in the footage. He was wearing a mask and it didn’t appear that he was speaking under the mask, he was just glaring at the camera.

The film ended with a close-up of Mobley and in the background you could see one of the string players walk behind him, the only time in the piece when two people were in a room together. The camera showed her walking over to a box and dropping something in it. The camera pivoted to show the front of the box, which had a large digital code marked SCAN ME. The woman in this shot was Katie Hyun, director of the ensemble, who spoke in the next segment of the program. The code brought viewers to a site where they could register to vote.

She had been developing the program for over a year. I’ll quote her: “I wanted to build something for people who struggle with hope, I wanted to build a program that addresses emotions that may be difficult to acknowledge. And at the same time I wanted to convey through music that there is still beauty in this world and there is hope.”

The next set was a set of songs by Florence Price, arranged by two members of the ensemble, Alex Fortes and George Meyer. The songs were:

“Bewilderment,” poem by Langston Hughes, arranged by Fortes

“My Soul’s Been Anchored In De Lord,” spiritual, arranged by Meyer

“Rise Mourner,” spiritual, arranged by Meyer

“I’m Going To Lay Down My Heavy Load,” spiritual, arranged by Fortes

The songs were sung by countertenor Reginald Mobley, who had been the narrator in “Coming Together.” He has a lovely voice, sweet and vibrant. The performance showed all of the performers together in a concert hall. All of the string players were wearing masks, Mobley was the only person not wearing a mask. The songs were beautiful and the string parts added a great deal of color and interest.

The final piece on the program was J. S. Bach’s cantata BWV 54, “Widerstehe doch der Sünde,” which translates as “Just Resist Sin.” Mobley’s singing was fantastic, he (and the ensemble) found the higher level of spirituality that I want to hear in Bach.

The concert is streaming online (for free) until November 3, 2020 at this link:

https://5bmf.org/events/coming-together/

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