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The Choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and St. Paul's Choir School out of Indianapolis, Indiana, touring the East Coast, stopped in Durham for a concert at Duke Chapel on Tuesday, July 12. I liked this choir. I liked them very much. Some fifty singers ranging from age 9 to age 85, a variety of ethnic groups represented, boys and girls, children, teens, adults and seniors blended in a sound as pure and rich as any English cathedral choir you would like to choose. In 2004, the church established a Choral Scholar Program that underwrites the musical training of many of the singers in the choir. The program aims to provide personalized training for children and adults, the preparation of singers as leaders in worship, and continual education of the worshiping congregation as it becomes a strong responsive voice to its creator. It looks like some people took seriously the commercial fantasy "I'd like to teach the world to sing" and went beyond the call of duty. It is virtually impossible to do mischief in the world, like war and terrorism and political lies, while singing with fellow pilgrims. What a beautiful model this church's effort puts on display throughout their summer tour from Atlanta to Charlotte and Durham and ending at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Their program began with four anthems by contemporary composers, all in their 40s or 50s. Joel Martinson's "'Twas in the Year that King Uzziah Died" is a versed and rhymed setting by George R. Woodward of the first part of Isaiah 6. Martinson uses a chant-like melody to set the mood for worship and matches the text's description of Isaiah's vision of the lofty throne and the awesome holy ones crying praise to the Holy God, Lord of Sabaoth. It is a wonderful introit. After the choir processed to organ music played by Edie Johnson, the sound of Carlyle Sharpe's "Laudate Numen" filled Duke Chapel and left reverberation echoing like angels dancing overhead.
Choir Director Frank Boles' "For God Alone my Soul in Silence Waits" brought us back to a more personal and inner awareness of the worship experience. Such music can create the atmosphere of worship regardless of the faith – or lack thereof – of the listeners. This was followed by Stephen Paulus' "Pilgrims's Hymn," a very nice setting of the poetry of Michael Dennis Browne.
Next were Ned Rorem's Three Motets (On Poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins). Rorem, in his 80s and at last report still active, is a unique and special American artist who has contributed much to the vocal arts, especially his outstanding art songs and his fewer choral part songs and sacred works. His genius at setting text to music with complex word painting and surprising harmonic treatment is demonstrated over and over. His music offers some interesting challenges to both performer and listener. The St. Paul's Choir did a very impressive job.
Organist Edie Johnson displayed her outstanding skill with a superb rendition of Haydn's virtuosic Te Deum in C (H.XXIIIc:2). She also provided the more-or-less continuo organ parts for the Rorem motets with the sensitivity of a knowing accompanist.
The choir then sang three anthems ranging from the Renaissance to the Tudor period to a sample of late 19th-century Romanticism. William Byrd's "Sing Joyfully," Henry Purcell's "Magnificat," and Charles Wood's "Hail, Gladdening Light" were sung a cappella with precision, balance, and control.
A second anthem by Boles was a highlight of the program. "The Righteous Live Forever," a setting of text from the Book of Wisdom with rich harmonies, inspired melodies, and wonderful organ interludes, was approached enthusiastically by the choir.
A setting of "God so Loved the World" by Bob Chilcott featured the magical sound of the choir's' trebles. Gerre Hancock's "Judge Eternal" reminded us once again of the glorious experience of worship. The program closed with Hancock's arrangement of "Deep River" and William L. Dawson's setting of "Ain'-a that good news."
By this time the choir was showing a bit of wear – it was a demanding program - and a few minor glitches, not worth mentioning, slipped by. Overall this choir was impressive for its challenging repertoire, its excellent communication between the conductor and singers, its beautiful sonic blend, and for who they are, individually and together. We are most grateful they stopped for a while at Duke Chapel.