In the Beginning
Sacred Heart Catholic Church
October 14, 2012
Review by M.D. Ridge
Virginia Chorale took excellent advantage of the ringing acoustics at Norfolk’s Sacred Heart Church October 14 for “In the Beginning,” their first presentation of the 2012-2013 season.
The program began with “I Am the Rose of Sharon,” a lovely setting of the Song of Solomon by the father of American choral music, the 18th-century composer and singing master William Billings. The a cappella work featured nice alternation between women’s and men’s voices, and delightful onomatopoeia on the text’s “skipping . . . skipping.”
A set of three contemporary arrangements of traditional Southern Harmony tunes began with “McKay,” arranged by 21st-century composer Carol Barnett, from An American Thanksgiving. Tenor Danny Markham intoned the first lines; the men and then the women came in, bright and airy, like ribbons of sound fluttering in the air, building and rising to a great torrent.
“The Road Home,” arranged by Stephen Paulus on the tune PROSPECT, paid lovely attention to Michael Dennis Browne’s text about longing for home: the words and phrases were given full value, and ended on a gorgeous floating tone.
The third song in the set was the legendary Alice Parker’s arrangement of “Hark, I hear the harps eternal,” on the forthright hymn tune INVITATION; the third and fourth lines of each stanza formed a joyfully fuguing Hallelujah refrain.
Mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon joined the chorale for a stunning presentation of Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, a setting of the King James translation of Genesis, describing the seven days of creation. Conductor Charles Woodward called it “a masterpiece of 20th-century music, ” and indeed it was, with lean but lush choral writing, varying the moods of each day with different rhythmic patterns and textures.
Redmon’s rich mezzo led off with the sung narration; the voices echoed the line, re-tasting it. The music underscored the text beautifully; as the waters were “divided from the waters,” the voices rushed and receded, rushing in again like the tide. At “Let there be light,” the voices produced a great blast, the sonic equivalent of light shattering the darkness. After the tranquility of the seventh day, when God “rested from all his work,” and the tenderness of “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” the conclusion—“and man became a living soul”—was electrifying. The audience leapt to their feet, knowing they had experienced something very special indeed.
The second half began with Reincarnations, three songs by Samuel Barber on texts by James Stephens, after the 19th-century Irish poet Raftery. The first, “Mary Hynes,” had quick riffs on word sounds, and a mid-poem change of mood to languorous, long lines.
In a lament for a dead man, “Anthony O’Daly,” the phrases fell, and fell, and fell again, giving way to the driving force of “ . . . there is nothing to do! There is nothing but grief!” The final word, “grief,” became a long, endless breath like wind on the moor.
“The Coolin (The Fair-Haired One)” was a love song with a simple but seductive text underscored by sensuous harmonies.
Composer and historian Jack Gottlieb’s “Advice from Honest Abe” was one of seven pieces honoring American presidents. It captured Lincoln’s wry humor —“You can fool all of the people some of the time”—with finger snaps and jazzy syncopation. It was not only a cheerful change of pace, but a witty allusion to the inescapable pre-election nuttiness of these times.
Four American folk songs in interesting modern arrangements topped off the program. “Nelly Bly,” written by Stephen Foster and arranged by Jack Halloran, was jaunty and cheerful. “Buffalo Gals,” from Libby Larsen’s Western Songs, took the verse melodies apart and came back to the tune for the refrain, with marvelous ascending triads on the last word of “dance by the light of the moon.”
The haunting lines of “Shenandoah,” in the now-classic arrangement by James Erb, featured haunting lines, effective unisons, lush harmonies and the Chorale’s ethereal blend. In the reprise of the first verse, the last note was spun out in breathtaking beauty.
In the final song, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” Emma Lou Diemer’s arrangement was energetic and playful. The Chorale’s encore was “Shenandoah”—just as gorgeous as the first time.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Sounds of Winter
Sacred Heart Catholic Church
December 2, 2012
At Virginia Chorale’s Sounds of Winter concert December 2 at Sacred Heart Church in Norfolk, a cell phone squawked loudly just as they were beginning the first song. How that didn’t throw off their initial a cappella pitch, I have no idea.
That first song, “A Spotless Rose,” by Herbert Howells, began with Adam Piper’s pleasant baritone solo, followed by the men singing melody with women’s voices underneath, then the chorale’s gorgeous blend, with a lovely floating tone accented with a soupçon of dissonance.
Lane Johnson’s “Snowflakes,” set on a Longfellow poem, rose and fell
like snowflakes in the wind. The first stanza, repeated, became the onomatopoetic fourth verse: silent, soft and slow.
For his vocal cycle, “Mid-Winter Songs,” on five poems by Robert Graves, Morton Lauridsen intended that the piano be on an equal footing with the chorus, which may have been why the Yamaha grand was miked. Stephen Coxe was the able pianist.
The cycle begins with the harrowing “Lament for Pasiphaë.” A little explanation helps: Pasiphaë—her name means “wide-shining”— was the daughter of the sun in Greek mythology. The poem begins, “Dying sun, shine warm a little longer,” a theme repeated several times during the movement, which ends,
“Then she who shone for all resigned her being,
And this must be a night without a moon.
Dying sun, shine warm a little longer.”
It’s an extraordinary piece of music, and the Chorale’s conductor, Charles Woodward, brought out every nuance.
“Like Snow” was lively, with eccentric rhythms and remarkable piano accompaniment. “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” was slower, with an oddly declarative piano interlude; the chorus ended on a beautifully held “snow. . . .” The restless “Mid-Winter Waking” spoke of Spring’s return, with an echoed refrain: “Despite the snow/Despite the falling snow.” The final, elegiac movement, “Intercession in late October,” quietly asked for more time before winter: the chorus sang, “Spare him a little longer,” repeating “Spare him. . .” until the sound evaporated into silence. No one in the audience breathed.
In the second half, the Chorale had some fun with a jazzy “Jingle Bells” and a pair of traditional Chanukah songs. The men sounded wonderful —rich, but not overpowering—in an unusual arrangement of Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with soloists Corbin Shoup and Bonnie Lambert-Baxter.
The women sat out Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” which has become a choral standard for men, with its interweaving of the Angelus and Ave Maria prayers. The well-chosen soloists were tenors Scott Crissman and Jonathan Rathsam, and baritone Marc Summers.
The crisp “Carol of the Bells” was followed by “The Huron Carol,” arranged by John Dixon, that brought out the Native American rhythms. Bob Chilcott’s arrangement of “The Shepherd’s Carol” was thoughtful and deceptively simple; the lower men’s voices sounded terrific at the end.
The spiritual, “Go Tell It On the Mountain, arranged by the Chorale’s founder, Donald J. McCullough, was nicely balanced, with crisp high notes and invigorating modulations.
Stephen Coxe returned for the encore, a stunning performance of another Lauridsen work on a poem by James Agee: “Sure on this Shining Night.” Long supple lines made waves of lovely sound. Just beautiful.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Let My People Go!
First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach
February 2, 2013
Review by John Campbell
In an a cappella exploration of human liberation, the Virginia Chorale opened their program with a piece by former wunderkind Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960). I cannot dance, O Lord is a section of a larger work, Ecstatic Meditations with text by Mechtild of Magdeburg (c.1207-c.1282/1294). In repeats of the title words “I cannot dance, O Lord” the chorus created whirling layers of sound as gossamer overlays, one over the other, building great energy with a stunning transparency. Mid-piece the cacophony seems overwhelming, only to be sorted into harmonious layers that spoke of leaping into love, knowledge, harvest and the sweetest fruit beyond human sense. The piece and the performers were amazing.
In contrast to this sparkling high energy piece, William Byrd's (1539-1623) Ne irascaris Domine was a sweet and gentle plea petitioning God to forgive his people’s iniquity. Byrd was a Catholic in Elizabeth I’s protestant England and this was his subtle protest against the religious persecution of those of his faith.
The next piece was by Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993) of Estonia. During the Soviet Union’s occupation of his country this forbidden music was sung by an estimated 100,000 at the Estonian songfest held every held every five years. Since 1969 was the 100th anniversary of the festival and the nationalistic Mu isamaa on minu arm (My Fatherland is my Love) was forbidden, the several repeats of the song were the protest. After all, what can you do to control this many united voices? The music was hymn like and each verse seemed quieter and more intimate than the one before.
From the era of the American Revolution came Chester by William Billings (1746-1800) with its unified vocal sound and descriptive text: “Let tyrants shake their iron rod and slavery clank her galling chains, we fear them not, we trust New England’s God who forever reigns.” Then English generals were named, these haughty, mature veterans who were defeated by American boys. It’s unfortunate that breaking slavery’s chains did not extend to people of color at the founding of our country.
Turning to the Jewish experience of slavery in Egypt and the Passover celebration of gaining freedom, we heard Avadim Hayinu. In this traditional Passover song the text is simple: “once we were slaves, now we are free.” The Hebrew, with each syllable emphasized, created a dynamic vocal tapestry. The text for A Tent of Peace is a short portion of the “Hashkiveinu” prayer and with a free-form English translation was set in a minor key by Elaine Broad-Ginsberg (b.1962).
A spectacular move forward in freedom in our lifetime was celebrated when they sang Tshotsholoza, a South-African song made popular as an expression of the desire for freedom. During apartheid gold and diamond miners used this as their rallying cry. The rhythmic propulsive singing carried the message “Go forward!”
The first half ended with the somber memorial piece We Remember Them, a setting from the Hebrew Union Prayer Book by Donald Grantham (b.1947). “So long as we live, they too shall live for they are now a part of us as we remember them.” To honor those who died in Newtown, Connecticut we were asked not to applaud but rather to share a minute of silence before the singers left the stage.
After intermission, the program honored the African-American freedom movement in a section titled “Steal Away, Songs of the Underground Railroad.” It is important to remember that singing is a way of creating unity in the human family as well as expressing that unity.
Oh, Freedom, set by Hall Johnson (1888-1970), is one of many songs developed over two-hundred fifty years of slavery followed by another 100 years of debilitating discrimination. That legacy of song included Follow the Drinking Gourd arranged by Allen Koepke (1939-2012). The drinking gourd is the Big Dipper constellation that points toward the North star, guiding the escaped slaves toward freedom.
The Jews fled from Egyptian slavery and the American slaves used this Bible story to encode their desire for freedom. Two traditional spirituals, Go Down, Moses and Steal Away, were set by gay English composer Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998). While searching for songs the congregation could sing during his oratorio, A Child of Our Time, based on the shooting of a German diplomat by a seventeen year old Jewish boy and the terrible pogrom against the Jews that followed,Tippett heard a black vocalist on the radio sing the Negro spiritual Steal Away to Jesus. Of that experience he has written: “At the phrase ‘the trumpet sounds within–a my soul’ I was blessed with an intuition…far beyond its obvious context. He sent to America for a book of spirituals and found a song for each major situation. Later he saw the 1936 black and white film Green Pastures with its all black cast and heard the Hall Johnson Choir singing spirituals in a free, bluesy manner that inspired his settings.
Tippet’s setting of Go down, Moses captures this energy in a flowing opened-out dramatic arrangement. The key line “let my people go” in Go Down Moses featured solo singing by soprano Lori Fisher and bass John Tyndall of Richmond. Soprano Corbin Thomas Shoup and tenor Scott Crissman were featured in Steal Away . This song encoded the underground railroad message of leaving the plantation. For those who cannot escape slavery now it promises delivery in the future and was a soothing consolation.
There is a spirited intensity that is lost when white composers arrange African-American music for mostly white singers performing for a mostly white audience. What is gained sometimes is a new perspective: Stephen Coxe's (b.1963) arrangement of Wade in the Water uses a light, vocal sound as if one is floating over the water in his simplified soundscape and altered rhythms giving the text a new emphasis.
For people wishing to experience the jubilation of former slaves you need to hear a choir that comes from that tradition. This program was a tribute to the suffering of those who achieved freedom. White composers, especially English ones, do not bring that intrinsic understanding to their compositions drawn from the African-American tradition. Keeping in mind that what we are receiving is a different experience, there are still gifts to be found here.
The program closed with Moses Hogan’s (1957-2003) Elijah Rock, an expression of exuberant joy. It is powerful singing with a sweet, quiet section, “If I could I surely would stand on the rock where Moses stood.” Though claimed to be a traditional spiritual I can find no evidence for this. Elijah Rock is a Gospel song arranged/created by Jester Hairston (1901-2000) and made popular by Mahalia Jackson. Her 1962 European tour was recorded with her pianist Mildred Falls who has been called “the greatest Gospel accompanist who ever lived.” Moses Hogan arranged the solo song as a stunning choral tour-de-force.
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