Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review: “REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony

July 10, 2007
Music Review | 'REwind'
Bringing Life, Death and Sight to Sound

Until fairly recently, composers who took on political topics tended to obscure their subjects through symbolism or misdirection. That we have lately grown accustomed to more straightforward reportage is generally credited to John Adams, who put arias into the mouths of Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong.

Mr. Adams, whose works were ignobly termed “CNN operas” by critics, had a poet reshape headlines into verse. But the South African composer Philip Miller went straight to the source in his “REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony,” which received its American premiere on Friday night at the Prospect Park Bandshell. The piece, conceived to mark the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in April 2006, includes the voices of victims, resistance fighters and government oppressors, taken from recordings made during the commission’s hearings.

Mr. Miller’s work was a lengthy procession of stories recounted in solo arias, small ensembles and choruses. Many were told from several perspectives simultaneously. The testimony of one woman, who learned that her son had been killed by seeing his body in a propaganda video, was conveyed through her own grief-stricken sobs, as well as a translator’s halting speech and a sung part.

Seated at a table on the stage, Mr. Miller cued the speech with a computer. “I wish this news could just rewind,” the woman said, her words punctuated by the shrill sound of a rewinding tape recorder. At the same time, her words appeared on a video screen, crawling across placid photographs and film by Gerhard and Maja Marx.

Mr. Miller’s conversational vocal lines, stormy choruses and chugging rhythms suggested lessons absorbed from Philip Glass and Mr. Adams. And like Kevin Volans, another South African composer, Mr. Miller has a knack for adapting the rocking sway of African music in his writing for string octet.

His inclusion of South African gospel songs and protest anthems provided much-needed moments of uplift. And this performance was blessed with an abundance of powerful voices, including the moving mezzo Sibongile Khumalo, the Williams College Concert Choir, the Total Praise Choir of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn and the local African chorus Themba. Fikile Mvinjelwa, a marvelous baritone, was equally impressive in operatic mode and in the popular South African mbube style.

Celebrate Brooklyn, whose artistic director, Rachel Chanoff, was a prime mover in the gestation of “REwind,” deserves credit for introducing this ambitious, provocative work in a free outdoor setting. Whatever conventional concert hall niceties were lacking — chiefly printed texts and translations — were outweighed by the idea that this piece reached a large, culturally diverse audience.

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