Carter and Britten


The Cantata Chorus Opens their 50th Anniversary Season

Allen Shaffer led the Cantata Chorus for 13 years (1989-2001) and was recently on the podium once again, this time as guest conductor. The November 7, 2008 performance at Christ and St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Norfolk, Virginia was an ambitious choral program with a fourteen-piece string orchestra and with Henry Faivre at the organ.

The evening got off to a rousing start with Sing we merrily by Sidney Campbell (1909-1974). The piece has organ phrases between choral exaltations. The a cappella Come hither, soul by John Dixon (b.1957) had a gently flowing melody punctuated by short intense writing that had a modern edge. Mr. Dixon was in attendance and took a bow for this piece commissioned by Cantata singer Didi Granger in memory of her father and premiered in this venue in the spring of 2007. The worthy soloist was Peter Simmons.

The two short introductory pieces were followed by two complex, demanding vocal works: Two Psalms by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and Otto Olsson's (1879-1964) Te Deum. Holst's setting of Psalms 86 and 148 dates from 1942. The tenor soloist in the Psalm 86 verses was Dan Waddill, richly supported by the chorus in sections of powerful music. The violins added great excitement. The mood in Psalm 148 was light, a celebration of the wonders of creation. Each feature enumerated was followed by "Alleluia" repeated twice but each repeat was uniquely set, keeping the experience fresh. Chorus, organ and orchestra came together in a grand finale to end the piece.

Olsson's Te Deum, Op. 25, (We praise Thee) was written in 1906 and is a masterpiece of Swedish church music. The use of the harp played by Vince Zentner was especially impressive. For the singers, the complexity was a usually met challenge by this 32 member community chorus. There was power and beauty and a deep commitment to being true to the spirit of the composers.

There will be an annual Messiah performance December 13 and on March 27, 2009 The Anniversary Concert with the Virginia Children's Chorus, led by Carol Thomas Downing as special guests. Donations are always welcomed to this all-volunteer group that has given 50 years of music to our community.

The Cantata Chorus Gives 50th Anniversary Concert

Friday, March 27, 2009 at Christ and St. Luke's Church in Norfolk, Virginia was a gala evening of great choral music and a reception to remember, created by Gail Bernick. Fifty years ago Grover J. Oberle, music director at the church, founded a community chorus as part of the musical program at the church. The goal was to present major choral works of the last 400 years to the community. Under the leadership of Dr. Allen Shaffer in the mid-1990's the group became a separate, not-for-profit corporation and has since been based in various Hampton Roads cities with several directors.

This season Dr. Shaffer has returned as guest conductor for the anniversary season (he retired in 2001) and led two English choral works, Te Deum by Andrew Carter (b.1939) and St. Nicolas by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Sharon Foxwell worked with Dr. Shaffer as rehearsal accompanist for the 3 month preparation for this program. Andrew Carter Te Duem from 1977 draws on a very long history of English church music and fits comfortably within that traditional musical language. Carter uses the fourth century hymn Te Deum laudamus (We praise Thee, O God) for movements 1, 3, 5 and 7 sung by the Cantata Chorus. The other three movements were sung by the Virginia Children's Chorus and use the texts Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis of Asisi, Holy Spirit, Truth Divine by Samuel Longfellow and Christ Be With Me attributed to St. Patrick of Ireland.

The Virginia Children's Chorus was prepared and led by Founder/Artistic Director Carol Thomas Downing. They were excellent in both pieces. The opening was on a grand scale with Henry Faivre at the organ, soon joined by the adult choir. The second song, All Creatures, was clear and strong as the children sang. The third song, The Glorious Company, was musically rowdy. In Holy Spirit, Truth Divine the children sing their sweet treble tune, and the adults repeated the same text. The energy builds to a powerful climax of both groups together. The King of Glory for adult singers includes a soprano solo, here sung by Billye Brown Youmans, interim director of Cantata Chorus last season. She delivered a powerful, heart-felt performance. Christ Be With Me, sung by the children, has a beautiful simplicity. The Cantata Chorus sang Day by Day, ending this well-crafted piece.

After intermission, Allen Shaffer led the congregation in practicing two hymns that we would sing during Britten's St. Nicolas (1948). Though Britten draws on the English choral tradition, his music is more complex because he also was greatly influenced by the Viennese expressionists Berg, Schoenberg and Webern. For this listener Britten offers a richer, deeper experience through his synthesis of two musical languages. The string orchestra of 14 performers, the Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn) and percussionists David Walker and Bryan Maurer and Mr. Faivre on organ created the rich instrumental base for the singers.

The story of St. Nicholas from his birth to death is in nine movements. In the introduction, tenor Keith Jones spoke to us as his congregation, asking us to look back 1600 years to see the simple man under the pomp of a bishop and saint. Percussion underlines his spoken words. The children sang of his birth with Boy Nicolas, Jon Paul, repeating "God be glorified" at the end of each line. Mr. Jones then sang as the older Nicolas as he left his happy home to deal with the challenge and pain of adult responsibility. On a journey by ship to Palestine a storm comes up and he demonstrates God's centrality in men's lives sung by adults and children's chorus in dialogue. Everyone is involved in the celebration of his becoming Bishop. The audience joins in the closing hymn. Alone, he tells of his imprisonment with the exciting support of the orchestra.

Eric Crozier, after he researched the history and legend, wrote the text except for the legend of the Miracle of the Pickled Boys, which Britten wanted to use, perhaps because of his lifelong fascination with sexless, innocent boys. The children's choir sang of the loss of three young friends during a famine. The traveling party, weary and hungry, stops at an inn with Bishop Nicolas. The children pray to Mother Mary and suddenly Nicolas realizes that the missing boys are the pickled meat that they are about to eat and calls them back to life. From the back of the sanctuary the three boys (two are girls in trouser roles) sing "Alleluia" joined by the Chorus at the repetitions. Dancing strings and pounding drums celebrate.

The strings and piano accompany as the Canata Chorus sing of Nicolas' piety and marvelous works. Narrator Jones recounts Nicolas' words before he dies, uniting his soul with his beloved Lord. The chorus wishes him peace and the audience joins in God moves in a mysterious way to bring this wonderful musical experience to a rousing conclusion.

Such a fine celebration of 50 years of community commitment promises many more excellent programs as The Cantata Chorus appoints a new artistic director very soon. We will wait for the official announcement though we are excited that it will be Scott Williamson. Also, the Virginia Children's Chorus needs boys in their group. If you know any young males that like to sing, please spread the word that they are needed.

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