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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Take Care of the Sense ...

From the Vault Dept.: “But I know him,” I protested. “We work together!” We need this reviewed, I was told. If it’s lousy and you don’t want to mention him, fine. Thus it was I wrote about the 1988 premiere of Tom Savoy’s “Four Psalms” as performed by Schenectady’s Octavo Singers. I make sly reference to a picture that used to hang in Decca Records founder Jack Kapp’s office, featuring the statue of a soldier and a speech balloon reading “Where’s the melody?” (And here’s an example of Tom’s and my work together.)

CONTEMPORARY COMPOSERS HAVE WRESTLED with the problem of melody in a variety of cowardly ways. The trend of anarchic dissonance that has dug itself so deeply into the academic scene has been daunting enough to make “tuneful” a dirty word. The only recent relief has been the dreadful phenomenon of “minimalism,” a kind of prolonged musical act of self-abuse.

Thomas F. Savoy
Where’s the melody? In rock music, in movies, in folk songs, in jazz. On Broadway. Which is also where most of the audience has gone. So it’s a pleasure to discover an unabashed melodist in Thomas F. Savoy, whose “Four Psalms” were premiered by the Octavo Singers Saturday evening at their concert in Union College’s Memorial Chapel.

Savoy, a Schenectady resident, straddles the worlds of church, concert hall and musical stage, and I’ll confess at the outset that I’ve collaborated with him in works for the last-named. Hearing his work with a much more venerable lyricist confirms my high opinion of his talent.

Take the setting of “I Will Lift Up My Eyes,” which opened the concert. The text promises safety from a number of catastrophes, emphasizing the safety with a calming melody in an easy three.

It was sung by the Octavo Chamber Singers and Youth Chorus with organist Elinore Farnum accompanying. The Youth Chorus alone sung the setting of “Clap Your Hands” in unison, giving it the sound of a chant even as the complicated melody bespoke its newness. 

Baritone Robert Abelson was soloist in the third, “Lord, What Is Man that Thou Should Care for Him,” singing with the two choruses. His style is to impose upon the music more scoops than even Helen O’Connell ever came out with, without any sensitivity to the text. He sounded unprepared and seemed to give up halfway through the piece. Which made it only tougher for the choruses, singing a cappella, who lost all semblance of intonation.

“Bless the Lord, My Soul” was the sprightly end to the set, a jaunty three-quarter time number for the choruses who, despite a rough mood change near the middle, finished with impressive technique.

The remainder of the program was Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service,” with Abelson featured as cantor. Here he sounded much more at home, although it was again a performance more of style than substance. With less portamento, he could give us more access to the music.

Full chorus assembled on stage for this part of the concert. Patricia Aycox and Nancy Stone took the brief high-voice solos from the chorus very nicely, and Murry Prager read a brief sermon toward the end.

The “Sacred Service” is a work of thoughtful dramatic construction but was treated too much like an assemblage of bits. Although the component parts for chorus sounded very good, the transitions were rough and prevented the cumulative effect of profound wonder that should be characteristic of the piece.

In terms of overall programming, it was an ambitious pairing of works, characteristic of this ambitious group and its leader, George G. Moross. The singers communicate an effective sense of affection for what they do, and the added boons of the Chamber Singers and Youth Chorus (the latter led by Luana B. Moross) enhance the sound and style of the performances.

The next concert by the Octavos will be at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 at Proctor’s Theatre when they present their annual “Messiah” by Handel.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 7 November 1988

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