Enthusiasts for choral music were able to enjoy a feeding frenzy in Stewart Theatre on the campus of North Carolina State University. Directing all forces in this homecoming celebration was Nathan Leaf, with accompaniment by Tom Koch and assorted student musicians. No choral gourmand could have departed into that early November evening not fully sated.
(Incidentally, yet another homecoming observance was held in a nearby campus facility. Said gathering featured the likes of Gloriana and Wale The Rapper. While one cannot be totally certain, that celebration probably was less, shall we say, elevated, than this one.)
Initiating the evening were selections by Vox Accalia, a chorus of some thirty-two women’s voices. They opened with an imposing number, “Will There Really Be a Morning?” by Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1961). Singing without score and accompanied by student pianist Divya Lakshminarayanan, the group lent real power to the sorrowful text from poet Emily Dickinson. Their closing piece deserves special note. Composer Bob Chilcott (b. 1955) has prepared a standard mass with a major twist. A Little Jazz Mass calls for chorus, piano (John Noel) and bass (Kevin Quick). It startled a bit at first, but gradually one started to come around. Kyrie eleison with jazz beat requires adjustment by the uninitiated listener. The subdued and somber Sanctus was a highlight of the work, receiving excellent diction from the singers. In all five sections Vox Accalia morphed into a smooth clarinet, so that singers, piano and bass took on the aspects of a veritable Benny Goodman Trio.
To qualify as a member of The Singing Statesmen, most candidates apparently needed to be aspiring ham actors. They exhibited good comedy with sea chanteys and spirituals such as “A-Roving” and “Java Jive.” But all this frivolity came along after they had established their musical credentials with a couple of grand selections. Silky tenor strains enhanced the fine male ensemble sound in Bach’s “Der Herr Segne Euch” (May God Smile on You) from the composer’s S. 196. They next brought on a masterly rendition of “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” by Abbie Betinis (b. 1981), from the poem by Vachel Lindsay. Anyone who has ever studied the works of this “first jazz poet” could doubly appreciate the insistent beat of Sam Ray’s accompanying snare drum, carrying the powerful piece along at a frenzied yet solemn pace. Director, accompanists and singers had ample reason to be pleased here.
The huge mixed-voice NC State Chorale took over to close the program. (The stage management in shuffling instruments and singers deserves accolades for its efficiency.) Koch and the singers set a high bar with “Your Voices Tune” from Alexander’s Feast by Handel. They followed with an impeccably balanced treatment of the sublime “Cantique de Jean Racine,” a genuine choral staple by Fauré. Here the able student accompanist was tenor Dixon Crews. After some fine a cappella work featuring a double chorus, a gorgeous anthem sung in Afrikaans and a William Dawson spiritual, the group introduced a work that can truly stand near the apex of choral literature. Stephen Paulus (b. 1949) has composed “The Road Home,” circa 2002. With sparkling soprano Rebecca Givens assisting near the conclusion, the group magnified the appeal of this heart-rending new choral treasure. “There’s a road that will lead me home…” The listener is carried inexorably and poignantly along. “There’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home…”