The Paul Hill Chorale opened its season yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center with a neo-Neanderthal program: Carl Orff's "Catulli Carmina" and British composer David Fanshawe's "African Sanctus."
Arturo Toscanini, who had an opinion on most musical matters, once declared that the music of Gustav Mahler "wasn't fit to be used as toilet paper."
Though he was wrong about Mahler, Toscanini's statement applied to Fanshawe's work would be utterly and indisputably correct.
Fanshawe is a British explore-composer, as he calls himself. His exploits connected with the composition of "African Sanctus" read like the bio of the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton. What he has attempted to do in the "African Sanctus" is set a number of taped ethno-musical segments to a "mass."
It simply does not add up to anything more than a work of banal, dreary, jejune, prosaic vapidity. The work is held together basically by a lot of rhythmical nonsense and a sort of TV commercial pop idiom. It lacks any kind of musical interest, except of course the most primitive.Fanshawe's setting of the "Lord's Prayer" is perhaps the work's most offensive episode -- what with its smarmy, gooey pop arrangement that even asks for a miked soprano soloist.
Fanshawe repeats his opening "sanctus" three times in the work -- but shortly into it the character of the entire work is established: ennui leading to existential despair. Properly stated, "African Sanctus" is to music what "Airport" is to literature. Both the composer and his magnum opus are overdue a long period of well-deserved obscurity.
Interestingly, Fanshawe, who took part in the performance, operating a tape console, wore his famous cap supposedly blessed by witch doctors.
None of this reflects, by the way, on the performance by the Paul Hill Chorale, soloists Linda Mabbs in the Fanshawe, Mallory Walker and Donna Gullstrand in the Orff or the small instrumental ensembles in both works. The chorus sounded rich and full-bodied, well-trained and attentive to Hill's Conducting.
Somehow, the sinister, anti-intellectual, anti-art, anti-cosmopolitan idiom of the Orff "Catulli Carmina," in addition to its historical associations, made it an inappropriate choice for a concert the day before Yom Kippur.