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The East Carolina University choral music program seems to be settling in quite nicely under the direction of Dr. Andrew Crane, and the program’s top-level ensemble, the ECU Chamber Singers, continues to demonstrate a wonderful blend of talent, skill and musicianship, as shown by a late February concert at Peace Presbyterian Church. Mixing Bach and Rossini in with Wesley and more contemporary composers and ethnic musical traditions, the singers under Crane’s direction showed a large audience why they are one of the top choral groups in the state, if not the region.
For many, the highlight of the program (one of several, actually) likely was a trio of sections from Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, which are decidedly un-requiem-like. The Kyrie and “Cum Sancto Spiritu” sections, in particular, have a liveliness to them — a bounce, even — that demanded and received an energetic reading from the singers. As accompanied by pianist Eric Stellrecht and organist Chris Pharo, these sections, along with the Gloria, were expertly performed, with crisp diction, polished phrasing and dynamics, and fine entrances and cutoffs. The second portion of the Kyrie (“Christe eleison”) changes mood sharply into a more flowing part, with lovely moving lines, but the overall tone is one of exuberance. This piece also benefited from a fine quartet of singers in the brief Gloria — altos Morgan Lane and Chelsea Keane, tenor Nathaniel Eure and baritone Ronald Holmes. Holmes’ voice was especially fine at the opening of the quartet. The extended melisma passages for the “a” syllable in “amen” were quite well done.
But two contemporary selections, both set to poems by Sara Teasdale, were just as good, especially the program closer, “Grace Before Sleep,” with music by Susan LaBarr. The composition itself is stunningly beautiful, with a lovely melody and harmonies, and the blend of voices was most impressive. The repeats on the final couplet (“And for this shelter and this light/Accept, O Lord, our thanks tonight”) brought chills. The other Teasdale poem was “There will come soft rains,” set to music by contemporary Swiss composer Ivo Antognini. This song included passages with whistling accompaniment (“Robins will wear their feathery fire/Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire”) and breathy “Ahs” mixed in with sung lines. Another contemporary piece, “Quiet Rain” from Hildor Lundvik’s Nocturnes, was an impressionistic work with a nice short soprano solo by Caroline Vaughan.
Crane opened the program with a brief but energetic “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Bach, sung a cappella and with considerable bounce, and the gorgeous Samuel S. Wesley anthem, “Wash Me Throughly,” in which each section had exposed lines. The closing, in unison, then parts, then unison, was splendid. Less well known but just as beautiful was “Duh Tvoy Blagiy” (“Let Thy Good Spirit”) by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944), sung in Russian. The basses projected a fine musical sound on the lowest notes, and the alleluias at the end were lovely.
Two “nonsense” songs (more like work songs) also were on the program, sung a cappella in native languages and from memory — “Veniki” in Russian and “Luk Luk Lumbu” in Javanese. The singers had fun with both, keeping up with quick rhythms without losing a sense of line or expressive diction.
Crane appears to have opened up the Chamber Singers to a wider range of students, from freshmen through graduate students (in the past, the Chamber Singers tended to be mainly upperclassmen), but this has not diminished the quality of the sound, which remains remarkable and remarkably mature for a college-age group. A new compact disc could be in the future, drawn from some of the best of the 2011-12 repertoire; the most recent concert by itself would make a fine recording.