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San Antonio Celebrates With Ballads Of The Borderland

Yinan Chen
Wikimedia Commons
Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park

Last Monday, February 27th, SOLI Chamber Ensemble and the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio presented the premiere of Ballads of the Borderland at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

I walked into the beautiful sanctuary not sure of what the experience would be. The concert was advertised as a celebration of San Antonio’s unique history and culture, and I wondered if I would hear a take on country-western and/or tejano music. I quickly realized that the concert was to feature works in the classical style of American music, the idiom encouraged into existence by Czech composer Antonin Dvořák and exemplified by American composer Aaron Copland.

The program began with SOLI Chamber Ensemble’s performance of Rodeo Reina del Cielo (Rodeo Queen of Heaven), a one-movement chamber work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, by Libby Larsen. Known for her ability to “write memorable new music completely within the confines of traditional harmonic language,” (Fanfare) Larsen is one of America’s premier living composers. Her inspiration for the piece was a hand-carved, wooden santo of Madonna and Child dressed in rodeo attire, by artist Arthur Lopez. Lopez’s santo inspired Larsen to combine a 12th century Gregorian chant (to represent the traditional image of Madonna and Child) with jazz rhythms and harmonies (to illustrate the figure’s American Cowboy clothing). SOLI played the piece with rhythmic exactitude and vigor, at times fusing, at other times clashing, the wild temper of a rodeo scene with the pious resonance of chant. It sounded like a Looney Tunes cartoon would if the Roadrunner was experiencing a psychotic breakdown, twisted and raucous with bent pitches, dissonant jabs and open-ended moments of clarity. SOLI’s performance was an appreciable introduction to the ways in which they would contribute to the rest of the concert, and left the audience eager to hear more.

The Homesteaders, a poem by Rosemary Catacalos (2013 Poet Laureate of Texas), was set for mixed choir, marimba, SOLI Ensemble and percussion by Wayland Rogers, an American vocalist, conductor and teacher. Suggesting that the poem depicts the relationship between human beings and water does an injustice to the work of Catacalos. Rogers’s setting of the text, however, elevated it. The piece opened with a marimba solo that resonated throughout the church like the sound heard when holding a conch shell to your ear. The girls and boys stood onstage with great presence and discipline, staggering entrances and repeating key words of text over the warm resonance of instrumentals. Every so often the percussion, mimicking sounds heard in the natural world, would add to the ensemble texture. The combination of elements at times seemed ethereal, eternal; at others, ephemeral and dance-like. The piece culminated in powerful, homorhythmic chords played by full-ensemble before releasing back into solo marimba. The ending was a moving, layered version of the piece’s beginning, an allusion to the circle of life in all of its manifestations.

Credit courtesy of the artist
SOLI Chamber Ensemble

The second half of the program was dedicated in full to Ballads of the Borderland, a chamber cantata commemorating San Antonio by award-winning composer and UTSA faculty member, Ethan Wickman. Composed in three sections- “Ballads of the Earth,” Ballads of Light,” and “Ballads of the Air”- the piece interwove stories of human pathos and Texan landscapes by San Antonio poets John Phillip Santos and Carmen Tafolla, among others. Joseph Causby conducted the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio, Chamber Choir, SOLI, and mezzo-soprano soloist Tynan Davis in this world premiere.

SOLI opened up “Ballads of the Earth” sounding big as a Brahma bull, energetic and bright with perpetual pulse. When the choir began to sing, I chanced a glance at Wickman sitting across from me in the audience and saw him rapt with attention, mouthing along with the singers and nodding his head to the landing of strong beats. Tynan Davis then drew me in as she stood and sang “People of the Earth” with operatic projection and vibrato, followed by SOLI and choir in “Peregrinos.” Part one ended with empty sounding chords ringing mysteriously through the room. “Ballads of Light” commenced with a twenty-first-century scherzo that reminded me of classic cocktails reinvented with modern techniques and ingredients. The instrumentalists rose to the occasion and performed with a grit unknown to Haydn and Mozart. “Ballads of the Air,” beginning with an interlude more atmospheric than tonal in its rhythmic interplay, led into “Elegy,” featuring Ms. Davis. At first, “Elegy” felt like vertigo with its quick shifts of tonal center, but it soon transformed into a grief stricken, full-ensemble wave of sound that drastically dropped in volume to the pure tone of Children’s Chorus. The effect was like a question so good that to answer it would defeat the purpose. “Something about the Clouds” and “Twilight Echoes” were beautiful in their inlaid chromaticism, paving the way for “A Legend,” a finale as serious as the business end of a .45. Loud, full, completely enveloping, the climax it came to was worthy of an all caps WOW.

As the audience clapped thunderously and the musicians gave their bows, I looked around the historic church and saw people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The evening’s impact continued to resonate through the room as we greeted one another, forging friendships and sharing our appreciation for the featured artists. Ballads of the Borderland was not a recovery of the past, but an expression of San Antonio’s distinctive spirit as it evolves through the ages.