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Rich harmonies give life to a choral menagerie

Children's stories use animals to depict human nature. The French poet Carmen Bernos de Gasztold uses human language to imagine the inner life of animals.

Premiered on Friday, pianist/composer John McDonald's hourlong song cycle on Bernos de Gasztold's "The Creatures' Choir" was commissioned by the ever-intrepid Florestan Recital Project. McDonald set 20 poetic letters from a menagerie of animals to God, in Rumer Godden's English translation; six other beasts are represented by solo piano interludes.

With a vocabulary of rich, clustered harmonies hinting at tonalities without settling on them, McDonald builds each song around tight gestures that often exploit the piano's extremes of register and articulation: Biting jabs in one song give way to cloudy rumbles in the next. The poems contain no overarching narrative thread. The fact that McDonald hasn't imposed one musically is true to the text, but it makes for less drama than might be expected from a concert-length work.

McDonald, a professor at Tufts, is a pianist of protean technique; the way he uses the instrument to conjure up each animal is uncanny, but for many of the songs, that's all there is. His attention to each word and image is skillful and apt, but rarely unexpected.

For some movements, this literal approach paid off. In "The Parrot," mezzo-soprano Jessica Bowers chattered incessantly, with the accompaniment jumping in to repeat, at length, the occasional prattling phrase. A wearily wandering "Snail" dragged itself along a glacial chord progression, Bowers complaining in a trombone-like, sepulchrally low register.

But despite McDonald's cleverness in channeling toad, lamb, and bear, it was the creatures without an obvious sonic stamp that yielded the most musically satisfying results. "The Centipede," neurotically puzzled by its own length, chanted mechanically rocking intervals over skittering keyboard clockwork. "The Spider" set the singer in a slow, delicate polyrhythmic web that moved past documentary to poetry. And "The Beaver" confidently exulted in its architectural ability with proud phrases, sturdy and optimistic.

Bowers sang with a sure command of the often demanding vocal line and communicated every word with sharp clarity. She has a big sound, and her dynamics were mostly on the loud side of the spectrum, but her characterizations were wholehearted, from a humming fly to a Wagnerian whale. Her extroversion tallied well with McDonald's playing: postcards from the zoo in bright, primary colors.

'Related'

Florestan Recital Project

At: Boston Conservatory, Friday

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