Present Music again a reason to give thanks

Kirstin Roble, contributing writer

Present Music has produced no shortage of successful collaborations and commissions, but one of the standouts is always the annual Thanksgiving concert. Held this year on Nov. 23 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Present Music’s latest version of the concert gave audiences another reason to be thankful this season.

The company began the evening by shattering the audience’s anticipatory silence with the rhythmic drumbeats of “Opening Song,” performed by the Buck Native American Singing and Drumming Group. A regular partner at PM’s Thanksgiving concert, the troupe is made up of men from various tribes in the Milwaukee area. Their entrance song echoed through the halls, combining voices and percussion in a perfect marriage of sound.

Equally in sync was the next piece on the program, Cathy Mocklebust’s “Towers.” Composed in 2000, the piece is written for a handbell choir but intended to replicate the ringing of church bells.

Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble was up to the task, filling the cathedral with a delightful, pristine timbre. While the low tones of the bass bells served as a foundation, the ensemble’s upper bells played a descending stepwise pattern — ironically creating a feeling of climbing upwards like in a tower.

Arguably the concert’s most ambitious work was “Hammers and Whistles,” a work by Karman Ince with text by Izzeddin Calisar that required nearly every guest, including the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra and PM’s vocal ensemble Hearing Voices. Longtime Present Music attendees may have recognized this work from a 2006 performance; it was originally commissioned by the organization for its 25th anniversary.

Running roughly twenty minutes in length, the single work was a tour de force for all involved. Mr. Ince described the piece as “about the wonderment of creation and the act of experiencing and sharing the creation.” The piece truly exemplified that, combining bombastic horn sounds with lush symphonic and vocal harmonies. The only weakness: an occasional lack of balance between the combined vocal ensembles and the instruments.

But a work magnitudes simpler proved the most poignant and touching moment of the concert. “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” by Gavin Bryars, was built from a recording Bryars took in 1973 while living in London and working on a film about homeless people living around Waterloo Station. The recording is just a few lines sung by an unnamed man, nothing remarkable vocally. Bryars put it on a loop, and created an orchestral and vocal accompaniment that flowed in and out over and over. The voice reminds the listener of the joy of singing purely for the love of song, another reason to give thanks.

Present Music’s Thanksgiving Concert reminds us to be thankful for the small things that we have in life. Whether it is the beauty of the sounds we make each day, the clanging of a church bell or the sound of drum, there is something to be grateful for.