Saturday, December 5, 2009

Inside view: My take on "Sweet was the Song" (12/4)

The Chorale had the first of two Holiday concerts last night at Williamsburg. I was about to write a note to the singers with my comments on the performance, as preparation for tonight's performance at Christ & St. Luke's, Norfolk (which will be recorded by WHRO and then broadcast on FM 90.3. It will be available online at Podcasts of my radio interviews are under the "Arts Conversation" section of the podcast tab on their website, fyi).

I mentioned our new webpage ( and blog at last night's concert, so I thought that another reason to share my impressions on the concert. The single question I am most often asked after a concert is, "What did YOU think?"

I thought the Chorale's performance of "Sweet Was the Song: a cappella classics for the Holidays," was quite accomplished. The group's blend is better than ever, the tone bright and focused while still supplying warmth and richness of color. Individual sections are clear, and inner voices audible in the groups singing of 8-10 part a cappella choral music.

"New wine in old skins" was the concert's theme, as new versions of old carols met traditional carols, and 20th century classics from Thompson and Britten were juxtaposed with Mendelssohn on the one hand and a world premiere on the other.

The concert opened with a simple, chant-based processional on the advent carol, Veni Immanuel (sung in English by the men, later joined by the women, as the singers quietly processed in the candle (bulb)-lit sanctuary. Three of Mendelssohn's "Proverbs" for the liturgical year followed. "New Year's Day" opens with a hushed unison phrase in the minor mode, before splitting into an 8-part, double-choir texture based on the Italian baroque style of cori spezzati (separated choirs). The singing was fine, but for this listener's taste, could have tilted towards the brighter clarity exemplified by Northern European choirs. Since Baroque examples were Mendelssohn's model, the argument for singing these works with an "early music" approach is not only viable, it is essential for their comprehensibility. Still, the Chorale's performance was excellent, the diction clear, and the phrases shaped by the natural inflection of Luther's German Psalm texts. "In Advent" begins with a lilting double-chorus mini-fugue ("Let us rejoice"), and of the three anthems, is the most complex, rhythmically and texturally. The closing work of this tryptych honoring Mendelssohn's bicentennial, "On Christmas Day" was an exuberant and festive double-chorus chorale that demonstrated the virtues of both composer and performers alike.

Another pair of verses from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" separated the Mendelssohn from the first half's centerpiece, 5 movements from Randall Thompson's cantata, The Peaceable Kingdom. Thompson's settings of the prophet Isaiah inspired his greatest work. The opening chorale, "Say ye to the righteous" is based on an instrumental model. After an opening hymn-like introduction, an andante fugue unfolds, with Thompson's sturdy craft much in evidence. The contrapuntal verses are offset by a series of interlocking chords on the words "shall howl for vexation of spirit." Both the technical demands and the expressive nuances were well-executed by the Chorale. The subtle and sensitive dynamics were even more evident in the haunting motet, "The Paper Reeds by the Brooks."

The final section of The Peaceable Kingdom is a great arch of a crescendo, starting with the men intoning "But these are they that forsake the Lord." Here and in the following recitative intonation issues emerged for the first (and almost only) time in the concert. Williamson started "Have Ye Not Known?" again, as the pitch had sharped considerably enough the first sopranos and tenors would have strained themselves on the excruciating tessiturra of "Ye Shall Have a Song." Though surprising, the move was the right one. The pitch--and timbre--settled the second time around, and the closing double-chorus doxology was beautifully shaped and exceptionally sung. It was an inspired and inspiring close to an interesting first half of not-your-typical Holiday fare!

The second half of the concert featured 20th and 21st century settings of Olde English carols. A new version of the brooding "Coventry Carol" started things off with style. Doug Andrews' updating juxtaposes jazz & pop-inflected harmonies and textures (respectively) to pique the ear's interest in how each verse of the carol will evolve and resolve. The Chorale caught the subtleties of the stylistic changes and sang a clean, clear, and again, sensitive performance.

The centerpiece of not only the 2nd half but of the entire concert was Benjamin Britten's student Christmas suite, Crist's Nativity. A set of 5 original settings of Old English texts, this was Britten's earliest vocal anthology, as Williamson pointed out in his illuminating--if slightly long-winded--pre-concert notes and demonstration. Indeed, the Chorale joined their conductor for a few minutes pre-concert to demonstrate some of the motives and themes Britten uses. One cannot judge a work on a single hearing. Every critic--and every listener and performer--needs reminding of that basic tenet from time to time. Especially so in our 21st-century-media-saturated, analytically-obsessed world. That said, Britten's early Suite is a complex web of fluid harmonic variety, rhythmic vitality and dense textures (often in 8-part/double-chorus). That complexity is rewarding, and the Chorale's performance offered many glimpses of why Britten's work can be so affecting. The opening carol, "Christ's Nativity" announces its composer's distinctly original voice from the opening chord, "Awake!" The defining feature of the arresting chord--which performs the word's action perfectly--is the piquant interval of an adjacent major 2nd. The chorale's blend and intonation were crystal clear in this challenging and engaging opening movement. The second carol is in a more familiar style, as it has clear intimations of Britten's most famous choral work, A Ceremony of Carols. "Sweet was the Song" features a contralto solo (beautifully sung by mezzo, Lisa Coston) supported by gentle rocking accompaniment in the 4-part treble writing. The line between sensitive and tentative in pp singing is a fine one. And one was not always sure on which side of the fence the excellent ladies of the chorale were, but the performance was an effective one, led by Coston's sensitive and deeply felt singing.

The third movement, "Preparations" is the most complex and challenging of the five varied carols. Modeled on 18th century baroque counterpoint, Britten writes a harried double-fugue that is exciting, if not daunting, to hear (& sing). The Chorale did a fine job of maintaining clarity and distinction of individual voices. Recognizing the difficulty such writing presents to performers, one wanted a bit more dynamic contrast, especially where levels softer than ff were concerned. Following the double-fugue, the piece "rests" at the dramatic fulcrum of the poem, and Britten's music is extraordinarily controlled and accomplished for one so young and inexperienced. The Chorale relished the rich textures of Britten's climactic setting of the phrase "and, as at first/still lodge him in a manger" and sang with beautiful tone and moving intent. It was the kind of moment one expects to hear at a Chorale concert--a glimmer of true excellence where technical facility meets musicianship beautifully sung with intent and meaning.

The fourth movement should have built on these qualities and, in the extended, Renaissance-based contrapuntal chorale, displayed a through-composed panorama of sensitivity & expertise sung with intent & control. Kimberly Markham's soprano solo was the most consistent and engaging aspect of this sober meditation. The chorale sang well, but one missed a sense of the slowly unfolding arc of the work, and that precarious line between tentative and sensitive pp singing appeared again (even if it was not quite crossed). Some intonation issues emerged for the first time near the end of the movement. It was, however, a beautifully sung performance of another challenging original by one of music's great prodigies. Britten's assured control of form and architecture is amazing in these middle two movements especially. Kudos to the Chorale for executing both structures with such clarity and accomplishment.

The closing carol was delightfully sung, the lilting melody dispatched from section to section, and the varied palette of textures and layered dynamics more clear here than in any of the preceding movements. It was a spirited performance and an exclamation mark to close this installment of the Chorale's ongoing, interesting--& bound-to-be-surprising--Britten Project.

Britten was followed by a set of new carols. Williamson's "Look up, Sweet Babe" wears its debt to Britten & co., if not proudly, then visibly. The fluid miniature was well-sung, the colorful chords punctuating the texture were clean and focused. Except for a glitch or two in the soprano line near the closing section of the work, the performance was quite accomplished. And, as I can speak for him, the composer was duly pleased, grateful, and proud. Kile Smith's vivacious carol, "Now Ys the Tyme of Crystemas" received an accomplished world premiere performance. While some of the madrigalisms (laughing "he-he-he's" and "do-do-do's" in the inner voices) did not achieve the witty affect with the audience they did with the performers, the clean, sprightly performance was well-shaped, and engagingly sung.

New arrangements of the "Wassail Carol" and "Silent Night" (by Paulus and Jalkeus, respectively) rounded out an evening of interesting, often inspiring, always engaging music. It was not your typical holiday fare, and that is as good a reason as any to hear it. Here, moreover, is an ensemble worth hearing: for the accomplishment and polish of the singing, the variety and interest of the programming, and the sensitive, inflected, & meaningful delivery of each performance.

In a world where's there's a lot of loud noise and mindless background music, groups like the Virginia Chorale are not just a luxury, but a necessity.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Britten. Rocks.

We did something by him a few years back, "Cantata Misericordiae"? Something like that?? (The Good Samaritan story) And I absolutely cried on the last page and could hardly sing. You'd think I'd look it up, but I'm too tired, I'm a great-aunt today.

But anyway, Britten does it to me majorly. I wish the Bard Festival would "do" Britten!!! (Hm, I don't mean anything obscene by that...)