“Open-hearted singing”: Tonality’s latest concert

by Ian Perry Walker, Lister reviewer

This holiday season, as we gather together to share gifts, food, or simply to share stories and warmth, it is important for us to think of those less fortunate, those that suffer, those that find themselves without a home. Then, we need to look at the world directly around us and find concrete ways to help those in need. That was the intellectual thesis behind December 2nd’s Stories of Home: A Tonality Holiday Concert. Emotionally, however, the concert spoke of a deep truth: to paraphrase Tonality conductor and founder Alexander Lloyd Blake, love can transform us into a home for each other. The concert paired a savvy program of music (most of it written by living composers) with true, personal stories told by community and chorus members about their experiences as refugees, immigrants, or people who have experienced homelessness. These topics have the potential to overwhelm with sadness, suffering, and grief, but the concert as a whole was uplifting and hopeful. Tonality showed attention and care to these difficult topics, and shared a powerful message of hope and unity capable of melting even the hardest of hearts.

The choir started in the outer aisles, surrounding the audience. They began the concert with Caroline Shaw’s “To the Hands: No. 5 Litany of the Displaced”. In the piece, the choir speaks, in canon, global figures of internal displacement, sourced from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre—The closest thing we have to the total number of refugees from certain countries (at the time of composition in 2016). Though the numbers started in the thousands, which this reviewer is ashamed to say that he was able to dismiss without much thought, the rain of numbers turned to a deluge as the numbers reached the millions. A clearer picture of this global problem began to materialize. Ironically, what engaged my emotions most directly was the cold, matter-of-fact way in which these numbers were spoken.

Directly after, Tonality plunged into the sinister “Would You Harbor Me?” by Ysaye Barnwell (former member of the pioneering ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock) as they processed to the stage. The piece brought painfully to mind the atmosphere of xenophobia and distrust in the US. But we weren’t down for long, thanks to a message of hope in the form of USC Grad student Jacob Broussard’s “A Beautiful City”, with text by Charles Dickens. This wonderful piece beautifully acknowledged the difficulty of the moment and a positive vision of the future in one stroke.  Blake led the choir in a masterful, overwhelming performance of immense emotionality.

After this initial blast of powerful musicality, Blake invited a speaker to the podium to share her personal experience of fleeing Vietnam during the last year of the conflict in that country. Throughout the concert, other community members, choristers, and even Blake himself shared stories on the subjects of immigration and experiencing homelessness.

Following the first speaker, Ted Hearne’s We Cannot Leave and Shawn Kirschner’s Away and in Danger (a piece constructed as a reframing of the perennial hymn) evoked the vulnerability of young people facing displacement and homelessness with haunting, stark sonorities. Then, the choir showed themselves equally at home with delicious gospel harmony in Shawn Kirchner’s lush arrangement of One Sweet Little Baby.

        Other highlights included Blake’s own arrangement of the folk/gospel classic Poor Wayfaring Stranger, which combined the confident strut of the blues with delicate and refined harmonies of contemporary choral music, and Reena Esmail’s Take What You Need. During this piece, the choir once again surrounded the audience, and the charismatic Kara Morgan invited the audience to sing in call-and-response fashion. She began to lead us with her clarion-clear voice, backed by a velvety cushion of harmony from the other Tonality singers. Then, as the choir continued, more stories were shared with this harmonious backdrop. The effect was emotional, mesmerizing, and unique.

Throughout the concert, Tonality was consistently able to skillfully handle difficult topics, and show their values in concrete ways. They invited the immigrant and refugee advocate groups IRIS (Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service) and the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project to attend with information booths. They began the concert with the audience literally at the center, invited us to sing with them for Take What You Need, and engaged audience members in conversation afterwards. In addition to featuring a vital and diverse group of singers, they programmed pieces by living composers, many of whom are people of color and/or women. They showed their personal and emotional investment by inviting choir members to share their own experiences during the concert. They showed their hope on their faces and in their open-hearted singing.

Tonality is not just a choir capable of creating immersive, inspiring concerts—it’s a movement.



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