Sing We Nowell


Virginia Chorale: Hope, Faith, Life, Love
Sacred Heart Catholic Church , October 12, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

In the lovely acoustics of Norfolk’s Sacred Heart Church, Virginia Chorale presented Hope Faith Life Love, its first concert of the season, a vocal journey through the stages of life, from childhood to falling in love, to marriage, aging and, finally, death.

The concert’s title came from an eight-word poem by E.E. Cummings, beautifully set by Eric Whitacre, whom conductor Charles Woodward lauded as “the most-performed choral composer of our time.” From a high, sustained treble note, the music hung, floating, like clouds in the sky, as other phrases swelled up from below.

A song of childhood—“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—featured a traditional French melody in a natty, cheerful arrangement by Daniel Elder, punctuated by high, soft vocal twinklings by the sopranos and low, soft twinklings by the altos.

Phil Azelton’s lush arrangement of “When I Fall in Love,” with lyrics by Edward Heyman and music by Victor Young, featured bass Steve Kelley in period pop style.

John Tavener’s gorgeous “Village Wedding” alternated a secular marriage hymn with a text from the Greek Orthodox wedding service. Its long, sumptuous lines began solemnly, contrasting with the sinuous, Byzantine interjections of “O Isaiah, dance for joy, for the Virgin is with child.” The ornamented vocal lines of the phrases “Let them throw white rice like a spring shower,” and “as in front of a fount of crystal water, let the girls pass” were quick, dense, yet light—like a fountain’s spray. Sarah Frook’s precise diction was bell-clear, even at the softest pianissimo. Baritone Joshua Grant let the Byzantine melody float upwards like incense.

Just beautiful.

In a major shift in tone, Paul Hart’s arrangement of the jaunty Lennon-McCartney tune, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” featured. . well . . . doo-wop, with a wah-oo-wah ending—not exactly my thing, but fun.

In Bob Chilcott’s complex arrangement of the Shaker tune, “The Gift to Be Simple,” the traditional melody became a syncopated ground with elaborations over it. It was beautifully done, of course, but it does seem counterintuitive to praise the gift of simplicity in such a complicated way.

Another Eric Whitacre setting of an E.E. Cummings poem—“i thank you God for most this amazing day”—had remarkable word-painting. The word “amazing” shot up to the rafters; the phrase “leaping greenly” leapt and danced. There were unusual harmonies with spiky leaps and tender dissonances. Sarah Kate Walston, whom we’ve seen before in Lyric Opera Virginia’s Viva Verdi and last season’s Master Class, was the excellent soprano soloist.

The final—and main—work on the program was the Requiem of 20th-century choral composer Herbert Howells. Only the third and fifth movements used the traditional Latin Requiem text, softly the first time, and later, with more prayer and less peaceful acceptance. It opened with the soaring prayer, “Savior of the world,” followed by a translation of Psalm 23 from the Book of Common Prayer, with soloists Corbin Shoup and Bonnie Lambert-Baxter. “The valley of the shadow of death” was effective in unison. Psalm 121— “I will lift up my eyes to the hills” —featured soloists Scott Crissman and Marshall Severin, as well as long, lingering, quietly precise choral lines of “the moon by night” —not easy to do, yet it seemed effortless.

Scott Crissman intoned the final movement— “I heard a voice from heaven,” taken from Revelation, with soloists Corbin Shoup and Marshall Severin. In the phrase, “for they rest from their labours,” a momentary blues phrase winked in and out like a distant star.

The opening of the Bruce Munro light installation at the Hermitage Museum gardens and the holiday weekend might have accounted for the smaller-than-usual audience. But then, anyone who misses a Virginia Chorale concert is missing something special.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Sing We Nowell
Virginia Chorale
Christ and St. Luke’s, December 14, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

The resonant acoustics of Christ & St. Luke’s church in Norfolk rang with the elegant singing of the Virginia Chorale December 14. Their winter concert—Sing We Nowell—featured the Christmas music of British composers from the 16th to the 21st centuries, under the precise direction of conductor Charles Woodward.

Without the text in hand, one would have been hard put to identify Giles Swayne’s Magnificat—a very different piece commissioned by Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1982. The opening call of the work came from an African work song the composer recorded in southern Senegal and developed with unusual rhythms and leaps, taxing low notes and sparkling high notes.

Videte miraculum was a six-part motet by Thomas Tallis, taken from the Vespers of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In its waves of music, circling and rising like incense, tenor Scott Crissman and baritone Joshua Grant were featured.

The first of three songs using the symbol of the rose was Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, on an anonymous 14th-century text. Written when the composer was 16, it was quite a mature work, in which a solo quartet of soprano Celia Brockway, alto Julia Coberly, tenor Christopher Burnett and baritone Rob Keenan, sang Latin taglines in response to the main chorus’s English text.

There Is No Rose was by Richard Rodney Bennett, from his Five Carols. The macaronic text was in English, with the last line of each verse in Latin; the melody and its choral treatment were modern, but with an archaic feel.

Paul Mealor is a Welsh composer whose A Spotless Rose rounded out the group, with a fairly straightforward but deceptively simple approach. Its Amen ending was low, deep and soft . . . lovely.

Kevin Kwan, organist and director of music for Christ & St. Luke’s, joined the chorale for Seinte Mari, moder milde (Holy Mary, mother mild), James MacMillan’s composition on an anonymous 13th-century text. It was translated by Joshua Grant, who spoke the original text before the chorale sang it. Each ornamented voice part vied with choral unison at a measured pace. In the last section, Gary Montgomery’s tenor soared dramatically into the rafters, before the song ended with women’s voices repeating Infantis ever more softly.

American composer Stephen Paulus, who died in October, was commissioned by Kings College, Cambridge, to write a new carol for their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He chose a stunning text, Pilgrim Jesus, by English children’s author and poet Kevin Crossley-Holland, affirming the “dance of God” with angular, challenging musical language that requires sopranos who can float up to high A’s and B’s and hang there.

The second half of the program was comprised of arrangements of traditional English carols. Andrew Potter’s huge, rich bass intoned The Boar’s Head Carol. In The Wassail Song, the last line repeated, segueing into the next verse. We Wish You a Merry Christmas called for servings of figgy pudding—a treat I’ve never encountered, but . . . The men began What Child Is This? which ended on a dissonant chord. The women started O Little Town of Bethlehem a cappella, then splitting into parts; the men did the same in the second verse. Bob Chilcott’s jazzy vocal arrangement of the less familiar Sussex Carol featured Kwan’s bright, cheerful organ.

The straightforward simplicity of Once in Royal David’s City varied unison, two-part and SATB singing; the second verse had lovely alto ornaments. A trumpet fanfare on organ introduced O Come, All Ye Faithful, for a bravura finish.

In honor of the bicentennial of The Star Spangled Banner, each concert of the Chorale’s 2014-2015 season will open with an arrangement of our national anthem. Francis Scott Key wrote the text, which was set on an 18th-century tune, The Anacreontic Song, by British composer John Stafford Smith. The attractive a cappella arrangement for this concert was written by British-born—now American citizen—composer John S. Dixon, organist and composer-in-residence at Providence Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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