Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 12, 2006

Summer rhapsody

Peninsula Women's Chorus heads to summer competition in Hungary after spring concerts

by Rebecca Wallace

Learning Hungarian is said to be nearly as difficult for English speakers as mastering Chinese or Japanese. Hungarian is a quirky branch of the language tree, not related to any of its Slavic neighbors or Romance or Germanic tongues.

Now imagine singing in Hungarian, coupling it with lightning-fast tempos and thorny harmonies. Without any sheet music to peek at.

Fortunately, some members of the Peninsula Women's Chorus seem unfazed.

"We're actually very used to singing in different languages. At a past concert we sang in many Eastern European languages," alto Elena Melendez said. "You start just memorizing sounds."

This is especially fortunate because the chorus is headed to Hungary this summer to take part in a prestigious choral competition in the city of Debrecen. The competition, named for Hungarian composer Béla BartŪk, was founded in 1961 and attracts singing groups from a multitude of countries.

"It's known for its interest in new music; it's naturally a good fit for us in that way," said MartĢn Benvenuto, artistic director of the Peninsula Women's Chorus.

The trip will also include choral gigs in Budapest, Prague and the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. And there's plenty to do beforehand (besides cracking open that copy of "Teach Yourself Hungarian," and learning that goulash is not stew, but soup).

For starters, the chorus is prepping for its spring concert, "Discantoribus," which will have performances May 20 in Menlo Park and May 21 in Santa Clara.

The first half of the concert will feature mostly sacred music, including an "eclectic mass" interspersing movements from Benjamin Britten's "Missa Brevis" with those from Swedish composer Jan ‰ke Hillerud's "Missa Discantoribus." First one "Kyrie," then another. First one "Agnus Dei," then another. It's an intriguing mix.

The evening will also include very different pieces by Hungarian composers.

One, called "Magas hegyr?l foly le a vĢz," by contemporary composer Péter TŪth, is also the first piece the group will sing at the competition. Its title means "From the high mountain flows down the water," and the opening sound is one of voices smoothly rushing, with a pure sense of movement. Yet the overall feel is melancholy.

Small wonder; the piece explores the subject of unrequited love, becoming bitter and more sorrowful. At one point, Benvenuto said, "the being closed off from love is compared to how a wedding dress can be lying in a chest without any air."

And yet the piece is beautifully written, with tight harmony and an alto line that haunts like a dirge, he said.

Like the other Hungarian pieces, it's remarkably difficult, he said, especially because of its mood. "It's very hard as a singer to just let yourself be caught up in all of those emotions. You can't sing freely and beautifully from that place — or, it's harder to do."

Another work to be sung at the spring concert (and in the final round of the Debrecen competition, if the chorus advances to that round) is "Venite Exultemus Domino (Let Us Come and Praise the Lord)." It's by Hungarian composer Levente Gy–ngy–si but is in Latin.

"It's very rich. You're never singing the same part as the person next to you," said alto Melendez. She acknowledged that this piece has been particularly difficult for the singers to learn, but added, with a touch of pride, "We surprise ourselves."

Although Zolt·n Kod·ly's "T™rŪt eszik a cig·ny" is not a competition piece, the group plans to sing it at the local spring concerts.

Mezzo soprano Kyoko Oishi gets a kick out of this piece, which famous for treble choirs. "It's kind of frenetic and fun," starting out talking about gypsies who get into an argument while eating cheese, she said.

After the high-kicking, breathtaking first section of "T™rŪt," the piece slows into a mellow musing about nature and little J·noska (Johnny) picking a flower.

As the singers master this challenging music at their weekly three-hour rehearsals (and other sectional practices), they're also wrangling with tricky Hungarian sounds that don't make an appearance in American English. Most notorious is the "gy," which is kind of like a combination between the American "dy" and "j."

As for remembering the words, some singers use mnemonic devices, while others simply go over and over the sounds.

Melendez and Oishi say all this hard work leads to a tight-knit feel in the 50-voice chorus. Also creating the feeling of "we're all in this together" is the fact that the choir performs without sheet music, unlike some other groups. The safety net is gone, but Melendez and Oishi praise the results, saying the group forges a closer connection with the director and the music.

"We're just totally being engaged. You have to pay attention to every single cue and every single nuance," Oishi said.

Melendez added, "It definitely is taking the leap of faith."

What: "Discantoribus," the spring Peninsula Women's Chorus concert

Where: St. Patrick's Seminary, 320 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park (the May 21 concert will be at Santa Clara University)

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 20

Cost: $20 general, $15 students and seniors

Info: Call (650) 327-3095 or go to www.pwchorus.org.

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