The title Vermilion Vespers was an immediate tipoff that whatever the religious functions of a vespers service, this one would be anything but sanctimonious. Even so, the freewheeling, evening-length work that unfolded from the Haverford-based composer Curt Cacioppo — and opened the Crossing choir's "Month of Moderns" festival Saturday at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill — was more like a musical funhouse in which arresting effects were cheek-by-jowl with less-than-stunning miscalculations.
Though Cacioppo was born in Ravenna, Ohio (not to be confused with Riccardo Muti's home in Italy), this 15-movement Sequence of Vermilion Vespers: Cantata of the Angels is the work of an Italophile merrily helping himself to a thousand years' worth of music, Mediterranean and otherwise, from Gregorian chant to pop-tinged echoes of modern Italian film scores that, the composer says in his program notes, he'd love to write.
Exuberant at times, gauche at others, the choral writing shares almost equal time with a virtuoso organ part, which has a number of flamboyant solo movements (played by Ken Lovett) that underscore the stylistic options enjoyed in the 21st century. The freedom to be tonal, atonal, pre- and postmodern was exercised in full, supported by the vast performance capabilities of the church's fine organ and the ever-savvy singers of the Crossing.
The composition method, according to the program notes, included a lot of encoded names of figures important to the composer — from Bach to his friends — that make for interesting analysis but mean little to the naked ear. Much more frustrating was a lack of aesthetic compass. Perhaps because of the composer's highly personal (even private) mode of composition, the piece's exterior musical events often felt haphazardly sequenced. Organ solos were full of improvisational vitality, sometimes inspired, sometimes devolving into musical doodling that stopped abruptly, as if to say, "Enough of that. Next!"
The most arresting effects were the joyful outburst in the opening moments and the closing movement, in which mystical poetry by Luigi Cerantola was chanted over an organ accompaniment scaled back to achieve meditative stasis — but elongated to the point of a water-torture effect. A frustrating piece. And though the composer's program notes were forthcoming, they were so elliptical and loaded with Italian words that you wondered if Cacioppo cared if listeners took his journey. Frankly, I audited it.
The performance was a repeat of the premiere earlier this season (presented by Haverford College, where Cacioppo is professor of music) that accounts for the Crossing's polish and ease. I've loved the choir for what it does more than its actual sound; now founder/director Donald Nally is drawing a sheen from his singers that I haven't heard before, and was particularly apparent in the motets by Bruno Bettinelli that framed the vespers. In contrast to the impulsively heterogenous Cacioppo, these works by the little-known Bettinelli (1913-2004) were refined, considered and had an almost Brahmsian sense of integration. As with Cacioppo, sanctimoniousness was absent, but in its place was passionate spirituality.