Review: Kinnara chamber choir debuts new work focused on civil rights

The Kinnara chamber choir debuted Heather Gilligan’s "Southern Dissonances: Portraits of a New South."

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The Kinnara chamber choir debuted Heather Gilligan’s "Southern Dissonances: Portraits of a New South."

Kinnara, a four-voice Atlanta chamber choir of exacting standards and progressive artistic values, gave an in-person performance Saturday — their first since COVID-19’s arrival — at Glenn Memorial Church on the Emory University campus. It was thoughtfully programmed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

With a masked and vaccine-checked audience, the choir returned with a pandemic-delayed premiere, Heather Gilligan’s “Southern Dissonances: Portraits of a New South.” Commissioned by Kinnara artistic director J.D. Burnett, it was originally planned for 2020. They paired it with a 21st century classic, David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning “The Little Match Girl Passion” (2007). Both pieces are scored for four voices and percussion, played here by Caleb Herron.

“The Little Match Girl Passion” is a spare, unbearably beautiful merging of a Hans Christian Andersen tale with elements from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” A poor little girl, abused by her parents and unloved since her grandmother died, sells matches on the street on a snowy New Year’s Eve. But she hasn’t earned a penny, and fears going home. Barefoot, her little feet have turned red and blue. As the freeze settles in, she lights a match and another match and the whole bundle of matches, trying to stay warm. Soon she is hallucinating as Death, in the form of her loving grandmother, embraces her. This bleak, painful narrative is interspersed with oblique commentary drawn mostly from Scripture, linking the suffering of the little girl to the suffering of Jesus.

Kinnara performed Lang’s timeless masterpiece as recently as November 2019. Saturday’s performance wasn’t as technically precise but was musically stronger, more haunting, more unsettling if that’s possible. I sat, almost alone, in the balcony. From up there, Glenn’s resonant church acoustic is ideal and helped blend the sound of the singers: soprano Chelsea Helm, alto Wanda Yang Temko, tenor Cory Klose and bass Steven Berlanga. Herron dispatched the gentle percussion bits — a ting of the bell, a tap of the drum — as if he were listening very closely to the singers, highlighting words and punctuating their sentences. It all sounded spontaneous and eternal.

As mentioned, Kinnara is artistically high-minded; it’s also politically progressive. Gilligan’s “Southern Dissonances” is the choir’s first-ever commission, with texts drawn from some of the most prominent voices for civil rights from Georgia. As the composer says in a program note, “This work is about progress and persistence, about standing firm.”

The half-hour work, in 12 short sections, evokes a variety of today’s post-minimalist and hipster compositional trends (including many of the same gestures we’d heard before intermission in Lang’s “Passion”). There are countless pieces that set the soaring speeches and sermons of Dr. King to music. Gilligan went further afield and nearer in time, adding texts by John Lewis, Alice Walker, Jimmy Carter and even a Stacey Abrams quote from her 2018 gubernatorial “non-concession” speech: “These votes are our voices. We are each entitled to our choices.”

“Southern Dissonances” opens with Langston Hughes (who was not from Georgia) and the potent rhetoric of “What happens to a dream deferred?” The words are poetic, the meaning is specific, but the music is slight. The next section, “We shall not be moved,” is based on a song that the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers sang in 1965 as they crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lovely, tangy harmonies created attractive moments which were curiously at odds with the text.

The composer assigns a distinct percussion accompaniment to each section. “We shall not be moved” is backed by a loose, thumping bongo beat which also felt disconnected to the words. That became a pattern across “Southern Dissonances.” Another Stacey Abrams section, “A Loophole for suppression,” was up against the marimba. Rather than complementing the language and underscoring the ideas, here the percussion competes for our attention.

Drawn from a 1979 Jimmy Carter speech, “Malignant malaise” featured a cello bow dragged across tiny cymbals. Why? Then, at the end, the line “We respected the presidency as a place of honor...” is paired with an assertive snare drum, a clichéd evocation of The President’s Own military band. But when Carter’s sentence finishes with “. . . until the shock of Watergate” the bowed cymbals for some reason returns.

A long poem by Alice Walker, “You want to grow old like the Carters,” starts with the tick-tock of the woodblock, perhaps suggesting the marching of time and the inevitability of old age. So far so good. But then the marimba muscles in, interfering with our understanding of the poem. Percussionist Herron is a first-class musician, and he wasn’t drowning out the quartet of singers with loud volume or aggressive mallet technique. It’s that Gilligan’s percussion parts distract our ears as to what the poem is about. For the vocal writing, instead of adding insights or fresh perspectives on the poem, her prosody pushes aside the music that is already built into Walker’s own poetic voice.

Elsewhere, Gilligan’s vocal writing can be clear and lovely, and the singers could mesh and play off each other with ear-catching directness. The highlight of the piece, and a sign of the composer’s talent, came in a very short a cappella section with another Stacey Abrams quote, “You cannot have those things you refuse to dream of.” Tense, effective and alert to the rises and falls in the syllables, her setting made you pay attention to every word. Although Gilligan’s compositional voice is not especially original, her music often bursts with energy and light. She’s still finding her way.


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Credit: ArtsATL

ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

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ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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You can reach Managing Editor Mark A. Waligore via email at mark.waligore@ajc.com.