Cantate Chamber Singers and Bowen McCauley Dance

The Bowen McCauley Dance troupe added visual drama to Menotti's work.
The Bowen McCauley Dance troupe added visual drama to Menotti's work. (By John Mccauley)
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Menotti's rarely heard, allegorical tale of artistic iconoclasm and social conformism, "The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore," is written as a series of a cappella choral madrigals, interspersed with movements -- scored for an unusual ensemble of winds, lower strings, harp and percussion -- that are intended to be danced.

The Cantate Chamber Singers teamed with the distinctive and prolific D.C. ensemble Bowen McCauley Dance at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church on Sunday for a fine production of Menotti's work. If choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley sidestepped some of her accustomed formal rigor and athleticism, her storytelling was clear, clever and very family-friendly -- a point emphasized by the children's-theater costuming and the dancing chorus of charming (if not entirely disciplined) kids from the Kenmore Junior Company.

Conductor Gisèle Becker found the wit and neoclassical grace in this piece, and drew lovely, text-conscious singing from the Chamber Singers. Earlier in the program, the 34-member choir (divided into subgroups of 17) sang enchantingly through a program of short, animal-themed pieces (with Hindemith's rapt Rilke-setting "A Swan" and Josquin des Prez's onomatopoeic "The Cricket" proving most memorable).

The premiere performance of the winner of the Cantate 2008 Young Composers' Contest, Kala Pierson's "Torno al Foco " -- which sets seductive textures against angular harmonies, and conjures obsessive love through a relentlessly cycling repetition of sung phrases -- was given a committed reading, even if the tenors' blending left something to be desired.

-- Joe Banno

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