‘Seven Songs for Planet Earth’ and Choral Arts Society is fine, not fantastic

I often find myself likening big classical works that I don’t like to greeting cards or film scores. This isn’t a trash on greeting cards and film scores, both of which are fine examples of occasional works: works created to serve a specific function. Both are aiming at a particular effect and pushing all the right buttons to get it.

The comparison is a criticism of works of classical music, though, insofar as it calls their integrity into question. One would like a work that’s billed as art to achieve something more than mere effect.

Or would one? “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” the new work by Olli Kortekangas that the Choral Arts Society unveiled at the Kennedy Center on Sunday afternoon, was a perfect example of a work that was tailor-made for its performers and its occasion, and may have served its function well.

Norman Scribner, the chorus’s founder and artistic director, presumably wanted something big and meaningful for the end of his penultimate season (he’s stepping down a year from now). This piece touched all the bases. It has a contemporary theme: the environment. It uses honorable texts (four poems by Wendell Berry) and incorporates folk music (the Sami, or Lapp, tradition known as yoiking) and cute children (the Children’s Chorus of Washington). Musically, it’s approachable, meaning inoffensive to an audience that would rather be hearing another Verdi Requiem or Carmina Burana.

What it didn’t do, for this listener at least, was come to life. There was a lot of care lavished on it, musically. Kortekangas has a way of setting phrases as if testing them, like an artist making repeated gestures of the pencil to limn a single line, starting from the beginning with Berry’s “I go among the trees” and expanding to singsong repeats of the action verbs in the third song, “Sowing the seed.”

The music was briefly liberated from its allegiance to lush harmony in the fourth yoiking song, in which the mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler sang nonsense syllables while percussion instruments leaped through the accompaniment around her. But it moved immediately into stock polemics with the preachy “We who prayed and wept” and snapped into outright cuteness with the use of the children’s voices in the sixth song, “The Beat,” the text of which the kids wrote themselves. It all added up to something perfectly pretty and perfectly anodyne. Even its theme had to be inferred; it was never articulated.

The work formed the second half of a rather overstuffed concert of equally anodyne works by other Scandinavian composers, the longest of which, Carl Nielsen’s “Springtime on Funen,” was an inconsequential genre piece about old folks at home, pretty maidens dancing, springtime flowers — you get the idea. The chorus sang wonderfully; the children’s chorus was beautifully prepared and did the various solos proud; the orchestra, which included a lot of musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra, did its best to follow Scribner’s somewhat uncertain lead.

And there’s no questioning Scribner’s utter sincerity. He introduced Arvo Part’s “The Beatitudes,” the one contemporary piece on the first half, with genuine love — though the introduction also betrayed an underlying attitude that the contemporary needs special advocacy. In fact, the Part piece was the strongest and perhaps most direct work on the program, perfectly able to speak for itself.

It’s a great thing when a local arts group is moved to make a large-scale commission; this one was realized only with several other commissioning partners and a lot of work. It’s a shame, though, when the final product feels watered down, as if it had to be defanged to make its point.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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