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Present Music Gives Thanks Again

Annual holiday concert an artful, joyful, rousing experience

Nov. 22, 2016
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Photo by Jessica Kaminski

The 15th annual Present Music Thanksgiving concert took place on Sunday at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee’s most elegant public space. The Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group once again began and ended the concert in rousing fashion.

A commission to honor the 35th season of Present Music, Robert Honstein’s Book of Hours was derived from artist Laura Grey’s reimagining of a medieval book of hours, used for daily devotion. The excellent eight-member Hearing Voices Ensemble performed with a chamber ensemble, conducted by Kevin Stalheim. Short texts were contemplated in settings that are simultaneously peaceful and restless, pondering the ever-present and always-changing now.

Honstein’s music takes patterns of repetition and artfully layers them; the result is often quite beautiful. The six-movement piece concludes with the men singing “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” On top of this the women sing “Timor mortis conturbat me” (Fear of death confounds me), creating a profoundly moving combination of hope and dread of the inevitable fate of all humans. As the sound accumulated and soared I couldn’t have been the only one there moved to tears. 

It was restorative to hear the refined young voices of Arrowhead High School Broadway Company in Caroline Shaw’s Fly Away I. Calm and gentle music was heard in movements from Henry Brant’s Mass in Gregorian Chant, played in a low and warm range by about 20 flute players scattered around the room.

Stalheim’s Ives Mash Up used one of Charles Ives’s best art songs, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” as its basis, interrupting it with sections of Variations on America for organ, and nostalgic American songs sung against one other, like two or three radio stations heard at once. The organized chaos of Americana captured my feelings about the country at the moment. 

The audience sing-along of “America the Beautiful” was my first experience of anything patriotic since the election. The words choked in my throat. If Thanksgiving is about gratitude, I’m grateful for this concert, which was a soothing balm in a surreal time of what feels like shifting sand.

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