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Beginnings and Endings

February 20, 2012

Beginnings and endings are very important in art, as in life. The start of something and its concluding moments are the moments in performances tend to make the greatest impact on us. What happens in between these two points somehow doesn't matter quite so much.

So it was interesting to attend a couple of largely wonderful vocal music happenings over the weekend by The Stanford Fleet Street Singers, a venerable men's student a cappella vocal ensemble, and Magnificat, an acclaimed Renaissance and Baroque music group, and observe how palpable the difference between getting these parts of a performance right or wrong can be.

Fleet Street's 30th anniversary concert at Dinkelspiel Hall on campus on Saturday night was riddled with amazing beginnings. The group always makes a memorable entrance, bounding on stage like a bunch of students that have just found out that their mid-term exams have been canceled. (They should be so lucky.) The songs all started strongly and purposefully, with different groupings of singers (both from the present ensemble and alumni who had returned to Stanford especially for the event) assembling in the middle of the stage.

Less convincing, however, were the endings. Perhaps it was part of their schtick, but the way in which the first half of the program ended, with the performers simply walking unceremoniously off stage, left their fans in the audience feeling a bit non-plussed. No one knew whether to clap. A lot of the non-singing elements of the performance similarly fizzled out. Comedic skits started out boldly enough, but often lacked climaxes and punchlines. The lack of finality, if intended, didn't work as a gambit. It seemed very much at odds with the exuberant, engaged singing and adorably geeky personalities of the performers.

Magnificat's concert of Monteverdi madrigals suffered from the opposite problem on Sunday afternoon at St. Mark's Church in San Francisco, but somehow it didn't bother me as much. The tight ensemble was excellent at closure. The expert singers and instrumentalists handled the curlicue final cadences with alternate bravura and wistfulness depending on whether the mood of the song was uplifting or sad, and we were never in any doubt as to when the music was coming to a final close.

What seemed much more ramshackle (though not necessarily in a bad way) was the start of the performance and many of the pieces on the program. The musicians more or less wandered in at the top of the concert when they felt like it and noodled around on their instruments. Artistic Director Warren Stewart made an opening speech which only about 50 percent of the audience heard as many of us were still filing in or not yet arrived when he made it. Some of the songs, which came from Monteverdi's eighth and final book of Madrigals, were performed without Stewart leading. The musicians simply started up. It was hard to tell who would be singing or playing in any one piece. Again, this was very likely a stylistic decision. It certainly made things casual. But I also found it slightly unsettling for some reason.

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