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Review: Chamber Cartel hosts Boston soprano Margot Rood at M. Rich Center

The Chamber Cartel performs "Letters Made With Gold" with Margot Rood (left). (Photo by Mark Gresham)
The Chamber Cartel performs "Letters Made With Gold" with Margot Rood (left). (Photo by Mark Gresham)

On Saturday, contemporary music ensemble Chamber Cartel, with soprano Margot Rood as featured guest artist, performed a concert of music by Heather Gilligan, Philip Glass, Caroline Shaw and Shawn Jaeger at the M. Rich Center for Creative Arts, Media & Technology. It was presented by the ensemble and venue in collaboration with the Goat Farm Arts Center’s downtown BEACONS progressive density experiment and the artist collective Cultivating Cultures.

The evening opened with a work for soprano and cello duo, “Living in Light” by Heather Gilligan. A Pennsylvania native, Gilligan is an associate professor of music at Keene State College who teaches music theory and composition, and is a member of the Boston Composers’ Coalition.

The four songs that make up “Living in Light” were written in 2014 at the behest of the evening’s guest artist, Boston-based soprano Margot Rood, who performed them with Camber Cartel cellist Jean Gay. The work benefited from the intimate interaction between Rood’s clear, lyrical voice and Gay’s cello, which in the first movement was treated like a complementary voice, with subsequent movements exploring its less vocal attributes like pizzicato, harmonics and double-stops for expressive variety.

The texts were not printed in the program booklet, but the notes imply that all were by American lyric poet Sara Teasdale, ranging in character from despair to hope against a backdrop of human mortality. The song cycle’s title (and that of the concert as a whole) comes from the last line of the final song: “Living in light, before they turn back to the nothingness that is their home.”

“Tissues” by Philip Glass followed, performed by cellist Gay with percussionist Caleb Herron and Amy O’Dell playing digital piano. For the music in “Tissues,” Glass drew upon his own acoustic orchestral score for the final film in Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy, Naqoyqatsi (2002). The piece featured a solo cello (Yo-Yo Ma) and reflects an emphasis on solo cello, with gossamer metal percussion sounds gently underscoring it, and digital piano joining in the final two movements.

After intermission, Gay performed an unaccompanied cello piece, “In manus tuas” by Caroline Shaw. Word is it was added to the program at the last minute. While it appeared on the playlist, there were no notes on the work nor a composer biography in the program booklet. A bio would have been especially enlightening to the audience, as the New York-based composer is not only a violinist and Grammy-winning singer (as part of Roomful of Teeth), in 2013 she became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Based on a 16th century motet by Thomas Tallis, “In manus tuas” (Latin for “In your hands”) was written in 2009 for cellist Hannah Collins. The nine-minute, largely arpeggiated work, was premiered by Collins as part of a secular compline service for solo cello at Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut. In Christian liturgical traditions, the end-of-workday compline service emphasizes spiritual peace. Gay’s performance on Saturday reflected that sentiment.

The concert concluded with another vocal performance by Rood, “Letters Made with Gold” by Shawn Jaeger, accompanied by a larger chamber ensemble, nine instrumentalists, conducted by Paul Scanling: flutist Matthieu Clavé, clarinetist Corinne Klemenc, bass clarinetist Michael Abrams, harpist Lauren Hayes, violinist Rachel Kang, violist Sprite Crawford, cellist Jean Gay (the only musician to perform on all four works), bassist Maurice Bell and percussionist Caleb Herron.

New York City-based Jaeger, who makes claim to drawing inspiration from Appalachian folk songs and hymnody, drew upon Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose” and Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Am I Born to Die?” The piece concluded with a variant of a collected folk song, “The True Lover’s Farewell,” which itself owes much to the aforementioned Burns poem. Jaeger chose not to incorporate the traditional tunes, however, providing instead original musical settings for the texts.

The three songs progressed from passionate optimism to denial and anger and finally to a mood of acceptance, resulting overall in a work that in the end feels like a melancholic, mournful lament for love known and lost, with occasional bluesy touches in the music and a few moments of agitation in the span of its course.

A capacity audience of well over 60 filled this M. Rich Center performance space, an attractive, clean, long room one floor up from street level, with a secure, attended parking deck adjacent to the building. That deck, related to Underground Atlanta, is a significant boon to audiences. I would feel confident returning to M. Rich again for a performance or exhibit, something I cannot as easily say for some other venues within only a few blocks proximity.

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