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(editor's note: This review reports on Dec. 6 and 7 events.)
The nominal highlight of two evenings of seasonal choral splendor at St. Paul's Episcopal Church was Bach's Magnificat, but that was not necessarily the best or most enjoyable selection offered by the East Carolina University Chamber Singers, the University Chorale or the St. Cecilia Singers. Indeed, an unfamiliar musical setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" on December 6 and quite an impressive arrangement of "Joy to the World" on December 7 might have made a more lasting impression.
The ECU Chamber Singers, under the new leadership of Alfred Sturgis (who directs the North Carolina Master Chorale) sang quite a spirited version of Magnificat, perhaps even a bit too spirited at times. This version, as accompanied by organ rather than orchestra, definitely hit all the right notes — in both ensemble and solo passages — but the frequent breakneck speed caused a sense of breathless urgency to permeate much of the piece. The text, of course, has both spirited and joyful meaning, but some moments of quiet introspection are necessarily called for as well. And the lofty acoustics of St. Paul's occasionally swallowed up some of the solo voices or muddled them a bit, especially when combined with the faster organ passages.
In 12 sections, Bach provides a most inspiring musical setting for the "Song of Mary." The nearly 40 student singers — who were not arranged in soprano-alto-tenor-bass blocks — acquitted themselves well on this challenging and demanding work, with Andrew Scanlon's organ accompaniment providing sympathetic support throughout. Especially noteworthy were the women's chorus in the 10th section, "Suscepit Israel," which took on near-angelic quality, and the following section, "Sicut locutus est ad Patres nostros," in which the men's voices start the first two sections of a fugue that was echoed by the women's parts. And the final "Gloria Patri," with its interwoven ascending vocal lines at the beginning, was simply thrilling.
The soloists showed considerable range, skill and maturity, and they negotiated quite well Bach's often-tricky intervals and sustained lines. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Thompson had a rich voice that handled the ascending and descending intervals well in the second "Et exsultavit spiritus meus" section, as did bass Eric Loftin in the fifth "Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est" section. The lovely duet by mezzo Amanda Hunter and tenor Todd Barnhill in the sixth "Et misericordia" section was a bit faster than one might be used to but well performed. And tenor Ashton Humphrey in the eighth "Deposuit potentes" section executed well the ascending and descending melismas without losing energy or tone. Mezzo Chelsea Keane was lovely in the ninth "Esurientus implevit bonis" section, but this is one of the parts that seemed faster, less "floaty," than one might be accustomed to.
Under Sturgis' direction the piece had all the trappings of fine Baroque music, and this was a solid performance. Perhaps the only complaint might be that there should have been as much legato as staccato in the approach, more lilt and less march.
The Chamber Singers' other selections were similarly well done, and the pair of "O Magnum Mysterium" compositions by Victoria and Frank La Rocca was among the real highlights of the program. The Victoria version is well known, and the beginning by the women's voices was so pure. But the La Rocca version, likely not as well known to the audience, provided a surprising bonus to the evening. The slow chant-like start in the men's voices built to wonderful, if brief, suspensions before returning to the opening theme. Another highlight was the seasonal song, "The Winter's Night," a short piece by Nicholas Myers, who is not yet 25. A deceptively simple song, written while he was in college, offers luscious harmonies. And Gabriel Jackson's "Tomorrow Go Ye Forth" had excellent harmonies and a bright "Gloria Patri."
The next night, the University Chorale and St. Cecilia Singers presented seasonal works that were perhaps better known and just about as skillfully performed. As directed by Dr. Jeffrey Ward, the full chorale, which consists of about half music majors and half non-music majors, and the smaller ensemble, consisting of the younger top voice students, offered works by such composers as Pergolesi, Mendelssohn, Reger, Wolf, Poulenc and Tavener.
The University Chorale, which has an especially strong soprano section, presented fine versions of the Robert Shaw-Alice Parker arrangements of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Fum, Fum, Fum," and the women were especially good on the Austrian carol, "Still, Still, Still," sung in German. Tenor Stephen Dupree provided a nice solo in German to open Hugo Wolf's "Nun, Wandre Maria," and the full chorale sang a spirited version of Mendelssohn's "There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob," although a few more male voices would have added some needed weight to the lower sections.
The St. Cecilia Singers opened with a stunning version of Egil Hovland's "The Glory of the Father," with its beautiful suspensions, and an equally lovely "The Lamb" by John Tavener. Howells' "A Spotless Rose," with its tricky interplay of vocal lines, featured a nice solo from baritone Alan Chandler. The surprise came at the end of the program: Frank Kuykendall's arrangement of "Joy to the World" sung by the smaller ensemble in front and the remaining members of the University Chorale in the side aisles, in a tempo considerably slower than one is accustomed to. The version did not drag, however, it was more majestic, and the harmonies were quite nice, too. This is one of those carols that often are sung too fast, so a stateliness infused into the familiar music was welcome indeed and provided a fine ending to a fine program.