Arts / Performing Arts

The Poetry of Music — Houston’s Kinetic Ensemble Ends Its Season With a Moving World Premiere of a Love Story

A Performing Arts Devotee's Last Call Review

BY // 06.22.23

“Poetry begins as a diary without a lock, one you want people to read.” — Billy Collins

Kinetic Ensemble, Houston’s 16-member string orchestra, closed out its season with the startlingly beautiful world premiere of Theo Chandler’s Beyond the Sanctuary Walls for soprano, double bass and string orchestra, with text by the composer

Chandler’s Beyond the Sanctuary Walls is certainly a love story. As we sink into the sonic world created by Kinetic’s virtuoso musicians and composer, Chandler invites us into a deeply personal story, rich in creativity and texture.

Beyond the Sanctuary Walls is a love story, the composer’s own — a poem, really — written in the language he knows best: music. Woven into five movements, the story is his struggle to escape the “sanctuary walls” he had constructed to protect his heart from hurt.

“His” voice is the double bass, played by the Cleveland Symphony’s masterful bassist Charles Paul. “Hers” is the wonderfully resonant soprano voice of Alexandra Smither. We travel with him from the first blush of love, to the terror of leaving the solitary cloister where he had felt secure, and finally to a space of harmony, trust and union where the horizon is endless and the possibilities boundless.

A Musical Road Map to Love

Chandler’s program notes map the arc of the composition. Movements I and V are love songs of hesitating longing and swelling romanticism that balance and ultimately resolve the composer’s turbulent escape to freedom. Movements II and IV are about vulnerability and fear as he faces the unknown. Movement III, carefully placed in the protected middle, is what Chandler describes as a “love song of an intimate kind.”

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The first movement introduces a lush musical theme. The sanctuary still intact, we hear the soprano sing to the double bass:

Speak love-words,

Filling shallow pools…

Heated tides,

The swelling waves of

Love-words spoken,

The second movement, largely a brilliant solo performance by Paul, conveys intense agitation as the poet determines to leave the emotional comfort of the sanctuary walls. Wooden-sounding percussion from the orchestra emphasizes the feeling of terror. Paul bows with a sense of growing desperation as the more muted orchestral accompaniment artfully puts the voice of the double bass in sharp relief. The soprano’s voice is absent, leaving the double bass, as Chandler notes, “alone with no words to communicate what is felt.”

The intimate love song in the third movement is an especially lovely moment, essentially a dialogue between soprano and double bass. Chandler titles it “Dawn.” Smither sings:

You shake off ash and dust,

The sleeping sand,

And rise.

You heard my heartbeats,

Marking life

In unmeasured time.

Smither’s luminous voice and wide range pair well with the muscular tones of the double bass that Paul, too, turns into poetry. This tender duet, a dramatic contrast to the turmoil of the second movement, is enhanced by Smither’s choice of dress. A gown of billowing pink taffeta, along with the softly lit background panels, fills the stage with color. The importance of pleasing optics, even at an orchestral concert, should not be underestimated.

Soloists soprano Alexandra Smith and double bassist Charles Paul perform with members of the Kinetic Ensemble in Theo Paul's "Beyond the Sanctuary Walls," in its world premiere at MATCH Theater on May 26. (Photo by Jeff Grass. Courtesy Kinetic Ensemble)
Soloists soprano Alexandra Smith and double bassist Charles Paul perform with members of the Kinetic Ensemble in Theo Paul’s “Beyond the Sanctuary Walls,” in its world premiere at MATCH Theater on May 26. (Photo by Jeff Grass. Courtesy Kinetic Ensemble)

Recalling Chandler’s arc that pairs the fourth movement with the second, we return to a process of transformation. Again the music erupts with terror in a kind of surreal dream.

Bloom, bitter fruits,

Rooted deep in earth and body.

Your spring weeps poison.

Smither’s strong lower register has replaced the double bass in an unbroken crescendo of agitation, staccato sounds and jarring dissonance as the rhythm builds aggressively until — in a climactic musical explosion — the nightmare shatters.

Here, Chandler notes, the “music breathes with a calming exhale,” and we breathe with it. Without a break, we slide seamlessly into the serenity of the final movement.

Returning to the motif of love that opened the piece, the melody carries the ebb of longing until the music fills the once empty “ink-soaked” night sky with “overwhelming light.”

Speak love-words

Into empty gaps

Of ink-soaked sky…

Now filled with

Overwhelming sunrise,

Expansive light,

Shining life,

I see your love inside

Beyond the Sanctuary Walls is a stunning work, a musically sophisticated combination of simplicity and complexity suffused with deep emotion. For all its moments of turmoil and desperation, there is nothing ugly or brutal. Underpinning the score we sense the composer’s gentleness combined with an integrity that will not rest until he breaks free into truth, freedom and light. Kinetic’s superb musicians stay with him – listening to one another, shaping and giving him everything he needs to make the premiere the success it is.

As the music ends, we realize we’ve been cheering for Chandler’s liberation all the way. And we know we too have been brought beyond our own sanctuary walls to explore new sounds, and combinations of sounds filled with expansive light.

Composer Theo Chandler, in conversation with Kinetic artistic director Natalie Lin Douglas, introduces "Beyond the Sanctuary Walls" to the audience in its May 26th world premiere at Houston's MATCH Theater. (Photo by Jeff Grass. Courtesy Kinetic Ensemble)
Composer Theo Chandler, in conversation with Kinetic artistic director Natalie Lin Douglas, introduces “Beyond the Sanctuary Walls” to the audience in its May 26th world premiere at Houston’s MATCH Theater. (Photo by Jeff Grass. Courtesy Kinetic Ensemble)

Writing For Houston Artists — and Kinetic Ensemble

This is not the first time Chandler has worked with Smither and Paul. They connected initially in 2017 as Fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer program for young musicians hosted in Massachusetts. After receiving the prestigious General Commission from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, and in close collaboration with Kinetic artistic director Natalie Lin Douglas, Chandler wrote Beyond the Sanctuary Walls specifically for Smither, Paul and Kinetic, contributing his own radiant text.

The Houston-based Chandler holds a doctorate in Musical Arts from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, a Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School, and a bachelor of music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory. He has been commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony First Music Program, Maryland Chamber Winds, Utah Arts Festival and Cleveland chamber orchestra ”Les Délices,” which specializes in early music with period instruments.

Charles Paul serves as first assistant principal double bass of The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. A founding member of the Kinetic Ensemble, he has also been seen with the Teatro Nuovo Bel Canto Orchestra, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and performed new works by Doug Balliet, Erin Gee, Jon Anderson and others by Chandler. Both his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees are from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

British-Canadian soprano Alexandra Smither holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Toronto and a Master of Music from Rice’s Shepherd School of Music, and is completing a doctorate at City University New York. To date she’s performed over an hour and a half of music Chandler has written for her, including Summersongs  and Two Taylor Songs. She debuted with the Kinetic Ensemble in 2016 in Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, which she also sang recently with the Charlotte Symphony. She has performed across North America, including with the Boston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Tapestry Opera and Canadian Opera Company.

A Delightful Music Bookend

Although best known for its commitment to newly composed classical music, Kinetic’s astute decision to bookend Beyond the Sanctuary Walls with two Romantic 19th century composers provided a balanced program that made for a delightful musical evening. The selections may even have underscored in an unexpected way Chandler’s different, but still very real, romanticism.

The concert opened with four Lieder by German pianist Clara Schumann written in the 1830s and 40s, adapted without voice for string orchestra and played with brilliance by the ensemble. In 2002, music commentator Gerald Fenech called Clara Schumann’s songs, “Wondrous gems and forgotten beauties, wrapped away in the mists of time.”

Last on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra (1880) in four movements. With its grand rich entry, we know we are back in the world of familiar harmonies and, for many, familiar melodies.

To my ears, the second movement (Valse) and to some extent the fourth (Finale) fell victim to a too-brisk tempo, a device sometimes employed to make classical music staples seem more contemporary. However, a true highlight of the evening, in addition to the selection of the piece in the first place, was Kinetic’s rendering of the exquisite third movement “Elegia.” Bearing into the evocative, emotional lyricism Tchaikovsky is known for, the orchestra played with one muscular, passionate and technically impressive voice.

Once again, Kinetic demonstrated it can handle anything from the Romantic to the modern to the futuristic, and any sounds you might hear beyond sanctuary walls. This was certainly a strong finish to a successful eighth season for Houston’s own Kinetic Ensemble.

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