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On November 15, in Elon University's beautifully restored Whitley Auditorium, the Netherlands Chamber Choir gave a 65th anniversary tour concert that began with a Bach motet but otherwise veered far into unfamiliar territory. The event, presented as part of the Anne Ellington Powell Master Artists Series, impressed on several counts. The revamped hall, which can accommodate 475 people when extra chairs are brought in, is stunning, visually and acoustically (although it tends toward brightness in loud passages). The seats are comfortable and comfortably spaced, side-to-side, and there's plenty of legroom. The space is dominated by a new organ, the dedication of which was recently reviewed in these pages by David Arcus. It wasn't used during the Netherlanders' concert, which was a cappella from start to finish, but Elon's resident organist told us she plays it every day, so there's a chance that even casual visitors can hear it informally, and it will surely figure in lots of future concerts. The hall itself is located in the oldest part of the campus, close to the railroad tracks, and it's not very well marked; to find it, driving in from the Interstate, turn right after crossing the tracks, go the equivalent of two blocks, and look left. There is ample parking in the vicinity. Please note that this hall is NOT in the building that houses Elon's other theatres and concert rooms.
The program also impressed because the choir is one of the world's finest. The notes reminded us that it was established in 1937 and is "an autonomous, full-time professional vocal ensemble enjoying full financial support of the Dutch government." Twenty-one singers were on hand for this concert, which was conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste. The group apparently changes conductors on a fairly regular basis. Kaljuste will have served the ensemble for four years when he hands over direction responsibilities to Stephen Layton next season.
The program began with Bach's "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," S.225; the English version of the title is "Sing to the Lord a new song." This was an old song, but it was beautifully rendered, and it set the stage for a raft of new things, starting with a marvelous group of choral works by Arvo Pärt (b.1935), the Estonian composer who is perhaps best known for "Fratres," which exists in several different versions. That wasn't on the program, however. Instead, the lineup embraced "Dopo la Vittoria," "The Woman with the Alabaster Box," "Tribute to Caesar" and "...Which Was the Son of...." These compelling pieces were the most recent compositions on the program, written between 1996 and 2000. The first and last numbers are very unusual settings of texts; the opening work is based on a 1902 Dictionary of Church Singers and Chants, published in St. Petersburg, and the last is one of those endless Biblical accounts (Luke 3) of various "sons of..." that recount the lineage of Jesus back through 75 generations to God. Both settings are tours-de-force of considerable proportions, as are the two intervening numbers, which involve portions of the Gospel of St. Matthew. The choir's English diction puts many American ensembles to shame. Two excellent soloists received bows but were not credited in the program. In these pieces and elsewhere, the choral singing was characterized by great intensity and precision, and the dynamic ranges proved riveting--at both extremes.
The second half began with one of Rachmaninoff's earliest choral works, the 3-voice "O Mother of God, Vigilantly Praying," composed in 1893 (and listed in the program as "Concerto for Choir"). Even nominally complete collections of this composer's choral music often omit his works without opus numbers, of which this is one. Latvian Peteris Vasks' 1993 "Litene," subtitled "Ballade," for 12-voice choir, was the evening's most curious item, for in it the composer stretches far beyond the norm for singing, using the choir in distinctly un-choral ways by demanding whistling, sounds resembling distant sirens, and so on. This must be a very demanding piece, for on several occasions, individual singers were observed using tuning forks to check their pitches. (The fact that a few members of the audience misread the title as "Litany" resulted in some puzzlement.) Representing the Netherlands was Joep Franssens' Harmony of the Spheres, Part I, composed in 1994. This was presented in a way that suggested our own Vocal Arts Ensemble's recent performance of Tallis' "Spem in alium'; six singers were on stage, five more in each of the side aisles, and five across the back. The resulting surround-sound effect was marvelous, but even more pleasing were the strong individual voices that the placement allowed the audience to enjoy. This is truly a virtuoso choir, and its return engagement at Elon was rewarded with a demonstration that evoked not one but two encores--moving versions of the spiritual "I've been 'buked" and the popular gospel number "Elijah Rock."
The program included the customary concert listings, texts and translations, the conductor's bio and notes on the choir but nothing about the works themselves. The Bach is well known, but the other works are not, so this omission obliged those who wanted more information on the contemporary pieces and their composers to do their own research. We've supplemented this review with some information omitted in the program; one of our sources is the Choir's own website, at http://www.nederlandskamerkoor.nl/ .
Elon has a lot going for it, and it manages to present visiting groups that don't routinely appear elsewhere in central NC. We're trying to include their most important offerings in our online calendar. Music lovers who visit the campus may wish to know that it is about 50 miles, one way, from RDU, and that many events there begin at 7:30 p.m., which means that Raleigh residents may have to allow for RTP traffic.