Dreams of Flying


The 25th Season of the Virginia Chorale Opens

The new music director, Scott Williamson, led a nuanced program of seldom heard Baroque choral music at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia on October 18, 2008. The same program was repeated in Williamsburg the following day. A new director means change for this group of 21 of Tidewater's finest choral singers. The energy in the rhythmic pulse of Williamson's conducting was new to our recent experience of Virginia Chorale. Not since founding director Don McCullough left has the group sparkled as it did in this program of music by Schütz, Buxtehude, Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Händel and others.

Lee Teply, in his excellent October 28 review (find it at Pilot online) says: "Diction in all the languages was quite clear, but, more important, the words were shaped into meaningful poetic musical phrases."

After the Precessional by Anonymous from 1631 we heard Psalm 100 by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) with the choir divided - soprano and tenor voices in the back of the church and alto and bass in front. Sitting between the dialoguing groups was a vivid experience with stunning singing by soprano Amy Williamson in a solo section.

Director Williamson's chatty introductions were welcome. He chose choral pieces by Bach's inspiration, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), who is currently known for his organ pieces and a motet by Johann Pachelbel (1653 -1706) known for his much overused Canon. It was lovely music with the drama created by a held line versus the chorus. There was a second piece by Buxtehude in Sequence with variations by solo voice, trio and chorus on a single line "What are the wounds in your hands?" In the middle of this piece they sang Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) with its meditative, understated drama created by an expressive use of dissonance.

A second Psalm (121) by Schütz and Ava Maris Stella by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) used vocal resources in a spectacularly complex way creating variety of sound within the text. Henry Purcell's (1659-1695) Hear my prayer was sung in English.

J.S. Bach's (1685-1750) motet Fürchte dich nicht was introduced with a quote by the famous conductor Robert Shaw that the listener only needs to bring to music modesty and vulnerability. As the Bach piece unfolded there was the feeling that the piece might fall apart at any moment - speak of a sense of vulnerability engendered in the listener! I later learned that the organist had turned two pages and the struggle I experienced was logical. There was a superb resolution by the end of the piece.

They closed with Zadok the Priest by G.F. Händel (1685-1759) with its long introduction for organ (Rebecca Davy) and cello (Peter Greydanus). A loud, intense cello section brings in the chorus at several points. The staccato singing is reminiscent of the power and joy of the Halleluiah Chorus. Mr. Greydanus' committed and enthusiastic playing was impressive.

We look forward to being in the audience for A Holiday Festival of Light and Sound on December 13, 2008 at First Lutheran Church, Norfolk. On Sunday, December 14th the program will be performed at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church.

Virginia Chorale Gives a Safe, Comfortable, Contemporary Concert

Scott Williamson, in his introduction to a choral concert of mostly contemporary compositions, told us that we had nothing to fear of dissonant, craggy, demanding music and he was right. Three local composers were in the audience. Adolphus Hailstork's music is performed all over America; he writes for orchestra, chamber groups, chorus and art song. His Crucifixion is a setting of the text of the spiritual but uses other musical means to create drama. The Young Singers Project joined the chorale. These same forces performed his A Carol for All Children. Cloths of Heaven was sung by the Chorale alone.

We were off to a good start with the opening piece by Eric Whitacre, Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine. Described as an eight minute choral opera, we were thrust into the Renaissance in a church in the heart of Rome with layers of sound dedicated to an intellectually intriguing idea - dreaming of flying. Within two minutes we had traveled into a modern musical language. When Lisa Relaford Coston sang "Bong! Bong! Bong!" woven into a vocal tapestry I found myself laughing out loud. What sounded like a reference to the Krzysztof Penderecki St. Luke Passion wrapped-up this cleverly constructed catalogue of sounds. Oh Yes! The wind machine sound created by voices kept kept the whole contraption afloat.

John Dixon's setting of Ode on Immortality is a comfortable, ethereal chant with chordal, harmonic textures. It felt sacred, hymn-like. The singers always give a superb performance of music as written. Mr. Dixon took a bow from the audience, his face aglow. Libby Larsen set Alleluia as a short, choral scherzo. The piece could be handled by your average church choir and the Stephen Paulus piece, Pilgrim's Prayer, has a lovely, restrained vocal.

Music for me is an adventure, my walk on the wild side. There were not enough demands made on me as a listener to keep me engaged throughout this program. The choice of pieces with the same feeling tone clustered together left me disengaged. Dissonance keeps me alert, engaged. Contrast in material is essential for my enjoyment. Material that could be handled by your average choir is not enough. The singers in the Chorale are not your average singers; I know several of them as soloists who touch me deeply - make me laugh and cry and leave me awestruck.

The subtle, constructed beauty of the written pieces was obscured by the hazy acoustic of the sanctuary. We changed our seats at intermission. At first we sat in the mid-front where the sound was dull but some words and details in the compositions could be heard. In the back where the sound had an open grandeur we seldom caught a word of text. Without a text sheet the unfamiliar pieces left us with a warm, comfortable glow and little understanding of the composers' intention.

Scott Williamson is a knowledgeable, educated and personable musician. He has the energetic enthusiasm that I found in our beloved and now departed Genevieve McGiffert. When designing programs, Scott looks more like a scholar while Genevieve was a scholarly impresario. Chorale founder Don McCullough built programs that used contrasting material to build drama. Using soloists, quartets and small chamber choirs could add variety as did Bob Shoup when he was director. The choice of venue, of material that pushes the limits of what the singers are capable of and an audience that demands all they can give - that is John Campbell's "dream of flying."

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