“An Unfinished Life” by Brian Cherney reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 7, 2007, Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

Brian Cherney’s “An Unfinished Life,” premiered this evening, is scored for a narrator (Marilyn Lightstone), 4 soloists (The Hilliard Ensemble), a 21 person (Tafelmusik) chamber choir, a chamber orchestra (6 of Canada’s finest players), and conductor Ivar Taurins.

Cherney’s composition is a setting of texts (letters, diaries, poems) written and collected by Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish writer who died in Auschwitz, 64 years ago, on November 30, 1943.

Known for his meticulous construction and quiet intensity, Cherney has created an inspired work that is equal to the time-conquering spirit of Etty Hillesum and the awesome abilities of the players.

Etty Hillesum should not be seen as a wanna-be-Anne Frank. She was 28 in 1942 when she chose ‘not’ to go into hiding, ‘not’ to dodge the common fate of her people but to accept her share of it “in faith and gratitude that life is so beautiful.”

Marilyn Lightstone’s narration of texts chosen for setting by Cherney is part of the musical design. Her voice of Etty, so full of life and feeling, curiosity, wonder, and practical determination, amplified in a mike that echoed in the stony vastitude of the church venue, is sometimes lost when she speaks in concert with the voices of orchestra, choir and other narrators.

However, as the work continues, the muffling echo effect is absorbed into the deliberate element of chaos that Cherney creates with his multilingual texts and multiple voices. What becomes absorbing at the sound level is the ‘multichannel’ interplay Cherney and Taurins get out of the whole ensemble. Voices seem to emerge into the space from different locations, at different angles, as if they were utterances of different, discrete points of view.

This is a kind of musical imaginativeness is on a par with stunning lines of text such as “I would like to be able to swim away in my tears,” and Etty’s observation that “A line from Rilke has as much reality as a cheese coupon”. This much imagination in text, score, and performance is without a doubt a life-enhancing experience.

The Hilliard ensemble (counter-tenor David James) opened up a new channel in the evening’s sonic life with their recital of songs in Latin by Palestrina (1525-1594) in tandem with songs in Hebrew by Rabbi Solomon Rossi (1570-1630).

Renaissance polyphony was largely sacred polyphony intended for church services and accordingly had to be serious and had to be sung so that the text was always clearly understandable. Palestrina’s music was bound by rules and he was famous for the strictness of his adherence to them. Rossi employed the prevailing rules, but for composing synagogue motets. While the music of both composers follow the same rules, the sounds of Latin, so consonantal, angular and devotional, creates a different feeling from the Hebrew that is soft, open, emotional.

In both cases, The Hilliards weave a soft floating web of sonorities pure in tone, perfect in harmony, each of their voices clear and distinct in its flight, all coming together at points like the organ tone of a single, justly tuned instrument. Their music is so rockingly peaceful; it is like you are already dead and gone as you listen. A journey through the Hilliards’ recorded repertoire would be a good and timely one.

For this evening’s pleasure and for everything that may come out of this “Unfinished Life” concert we are grateful to The Canada Council, Soundstreams Canada, and Holocaust Education Week.

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