Note: Nearly three months after this review first appeared at WitD I ran into CAS financial officer Ralph Jones at the home of a very close mutual friend at a Labor Day weekend barbeque. I asked Jones, a headstrong pedant why he never acknowledged the review, one of many done in behalf of the group where he serves mainly in a marked unartistic capacity -his choral singer wife is the reason he is involved- why he never acknowledged its publication. He responded with an annoyed quip that I “mispelled” the director’s name. Going back to the review I found that I spelled Martin Sedek as Martin Sedak. I erroneously substituted the “e” in the director’s name for the incorrect “a”. One letter spelled wrong and Jones opted not to acknowledge the review which was done as a favor, and which took me time from a busy day to complete. This is not the first time Jones has called me on the carpet for a review I wrote in his behalf. A few years ago he made a major stink because I wrote “Arts Society” instead of “Art Society” though it was the very first review I had written on the group. Truth be said Jones is easily threatened when someone comes along who has a far more vast and studied grasp of the classical canon, in my case many years of attending concerts by the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, City Opera and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra via partial season subscription. I am also a regular at many local venues including those staged by the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra and the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. Jones’ chief involvement with his wife’s choral group is a technical one, but he still struts all he can. I have never myself been very impressed with his personal contribution, though it is clearly a no-brainer. Here is the hitch: Jones never tried to contact me to change the single letter typo in the 1,000 plus word review. He knows well all he could have done was e mail me and I would have changed the single vowel immediately as the site administrator. But Jones had no desire to do that. He much preferred to “play the role” for his director with nose way up in the air. He needed to impress Sedek against the affrontery of “disrespect” no doubt to prove what a loyal guy he is. No matter to Jones that the review praises Sedek to the high heavens, he used this opportunity to play internet police, most reprehensibly at my expense. Too bad Jones himself hasn’t a speck of talent to conduct himself in that manner. Instead of concerning himself with the quality of the review, the discussion of the music and glowing appreciation of the CAS he obsesses over a single letter. As long as Ralph Jones is involved, this was the final concert by this group my wife and I will ever attend. We’ve traveled all over to attend about eight (8), mainly out of respect for our very dear mutual lifelong friend, but I have reached the end of the line with Jonze, oh I mean Jones.
by Sam Juliano
The May 14th concert by the Choral Art Society of New Jersey featured work by some of classical music’s most iconic figures, but it was the reunion of a student playing one of his one-time mentor’s most celebrated compositions that brought a special emotional heft to the proceedings. Performed at the acoustic-friendly Presbyterian Church in Westfield -the group’s home base for decades, the night brought CAS Music Director Martin Sedak and his previous instructor – the composer Matthew Harris – together in a glorious presentation of the latter’s Oceanic Eyes, a four part cantata commissioned in 2006 based on texts by celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and distinguished by the employment of classical guitar that allowed the work’s distinct Spanish romanticism to shine through. The composition’s lilting metaphors and colorful imagery seems inspired by the British poet Alfred Noyes who wove undying nocturnal passions into the narrative of his arresting “The Highwayman.” Yet it was the highly emotive, stirring and soulful reading by the committed singers of the CAS who injected Harris’ work with a sense of immediacy, aided by the prism of water, which flows through universal appreciation.Sedak’s decision to open the show with a rarely performed song by the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams proved to be a masterstroke of mood and staging. To be sure “The Lover’s Ghost” (from Five English Folk Songs) is one of the most sublime and haunting choral pieces from anyone, replete as the piece is with color, form, harmony and expression but especially prominent for its contrapuntal construction. Sedak directed the singers to create two lines in the space between the central orchestra and the sides, making all the more of a powerful impression. Though the second work is another infrequently negotiated composition, the fact that it was written by Beethoven elevates it immeasurably for classical music fans who can never get enough of one of the form’s supreme immortals. A Calm Sea & A Prosperous Voyage is noted for the composer’s setting the text by Johann von Goethe and as an earlier example of his evocative nature writing that is strikingly evident in his later symphonic masterworks, so expertly visited by the CAS.
Peter Grimes is arguably Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece, and it contains some of the most arresting choral passages in the form. “Song of the Fisherman” features a piano in a different key from the choir tolling the bells on a clock in an infectious burst of lyricism projected in ominous mode. This somber piece is one of the opera’s most unforgettable chapters, one that serves as a kind of Greek Chorus for the tragic finale. More upbeat is “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing” with its dance meters and four melody structure. The CAS brought a fresh sense of urgency to both songs, refusing to yield in any manner to the tonal complexities of Britten’s music, delivering flowing lines that are countered by the musical accompaniment by the superlative pianist, Mary Beth McFall, who is now in her nineteenth season with the group.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was the inclusion of The Seal Lullaby, a song written by Eric Whitacre for a subsequently aborted Disney film that was to be based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Seal. Though the project never got off the ground, Whitacre had left his composition at the studio, where it was eventually picked up by the Towne Singers, who introduced a choral arrangement. The composer was inspired by the material when the ravishing melody came to him, and the Westfield ensemble did the song full justice with a reading of great poignancy.
Sedak had his own compositional moment in the limelight following up Harris’ work with his own interpretation of Beethoven’s A Calm Sea and the program designated the pairing as the centerpieces of the concert what with both works receiving full orchestral accompaniment. Sedak’s own elucidation brought contemporary musical relevance to this work of pastoral prominence, one fully confident to sit alongside greatness.
An African-American spiritual Take Me to the Water by Rollo Dillworth wound up the show with the most forceful incarnation of the connecting theme, combining quotes from “Down by the Riverside” and “Wade in the Water.” In the context of this piece the water references were embraced to foster hope for freedom among the slaves. In contrast to the darker intensity of the previous numbers, Dillworth’s composition was buoyant and suffused with at least a small measure of optimism.
Now in its 54th season, the Choral Art Society schedules two shows a year, with rehearsals set for Tuesday at the church. Rarely has a unifying theme worked so splendidly in treating the public to high octane readings of enormously appealing music usually left in a holding pattern while the more familiar compositions usually take center stage. “Songs of the Sea” is an extraordinarily beautiful proposition.