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John Kennedy’s One Body at Boston Court highlights Timur’s range

One Body, by Berkeley-based composer John Kennedy was performed February 15, 2019 at Boston Court in Pasadena as part of their Winter Music Series. This five movement cantata combines texts by Walt Whitman, St. Augustine, Native Americans and several contemporary poets with the formidable vocal skills of Timur, the masterful playing of the Isaura String Quartet and multi-talented percussionists Yuri Inoo and Sidney Hopson. Conducted by the composer, this five-part work explores the spiritual implications of the earth as a living entity, divisions by species, the limitations of race and stereotypes of gender. The composer writes that One Body seeks to create “a modern liturgy of secular humanism which joins spirituality with intellectual freedom.” There was hardly an empty seat in Boston Court’s Branson performance space despite the heavy Friday night traffic and a driving rain.

The five movements of One Body are performed without pause and all have a similar form. There is a prelude of string solos, quartet music or percussion, followed by one or more sung texts. Kennedy’s music is calmly tonal. This work strives for the transcendental and succeeds convincingly. The opening movement begins with a sustained, but ragged tutti chord, suggesting a formless chaos at the beginning of creation. The sounds gradually become organized as Timur’s voice enters with two sustained notes that float airily above the strings and percussion. Texts by Walt Whitman and Kenneth Patchen were sung, at times in greatly differing registers. Timur’s amazing range is capable of full baritone, tenor, countertenor and higher – all seamlessly connected with no breaks or boundaries. There is a comforting and uplifting feeling that persists over the entire work, and the lush harmonies in the strings, the understated percussion, and the expressive vocals all come together flawlessly. The text by St. Augustine, preceded by an expressive viola solo, was particularly appropriate:

If we are members of one body, then in that one body
there is neither male nor female;
or rather, there is both;
it is an androgynous or hermaphroditic body,
containing both sexes.

As the five movements continued, Timur moved gracefully about the small stage, taking up different positions. Although barefoot, his tall stature made for an imposing but never intimidating presence. At certain points during the string preludes and solos, Timur stooped to light a series of votive candles arranged in front of the quartet. This added a ceremonial dimension to a performance that, although devoid of overt religiosity, imparted a decidedly humanist and secular spirituality.

Movement II featured a particularly lush low register cello interlude. Later, the gently animated string quartet embodied Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem text, sung in this section. Movement III contained an extended stretch of subtle percussion that perfectly complemented the Mohawk prayers in the text. The singing here was particularly impressive, with Timur changing registers on alternate verses, jumping effortlessly from baritone to countertenor, and back again. Movement IV was perhaps the most dynamic, with strong percussion that subsided into a sweetly calming string section.

The final movement was preceded by yet another lovely string interlude, full of quiet assurance. The final text was heard first in the baritone range, a formal and declarative summation with just the right amount of ringing in the accompanying triangles. The singing was completed in the countertenor range, slowing and with just a touch of melancholy. A projection of what seemed to be a goddess was seen on the rear of the stage as the strings quietly faded at the finish. The stage went dark, and a full 10 seconds of silence followed before enthusiastic applause and loud cheering rang out from the audience.

One Body, despite its manifest brilliance, is fated to receive few performances, depending as it does on the uncommonly gifted vocal soloist. There is no  way to break the various texts into the conventional ranges; if there were soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, it would simply cease to be One Body. There was some speculative talk in the lobby afterwards about mounting another performance. Should that materialize, do not fail to miss it. One Body must be heard to be believed.

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