If you ever have the opportunity to go on an English Cathedral tour and hear some of the great music of the British Isles in those exquisite edifices, you will be thrilled, inspired, and perhaps even overwhelmed. Barring that, you can take advantage of opportunities here in the triangle like hearing Cantari sing "Gems from British Cathedrals" in the warm and inviting Gothic sanctuary of The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill.
Sue Klausmeyer, director of the 33-voice ensemble, chose for this program works of 20th century British composers Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Mathias, each representing the classical sounds of English church music. Enhancing the program was the artistry of special guest organist Matthew Brown, widely renowned organ master, currently based in Salisbury, NC.
The program opened with Finzi's popular and glorious anthem, "God is gone up." The music began with a bright and powerful organ fanfare that filled the sanctuary. When the choir came in with the astonishing leap of the first phrase, everyone's focus was on the meaning of ascension, the subject of the text by American poet, Edward Taylor. Klausmeyer conducted a stirring performance of this very well-crafted work.
The second work on the program, also by Finzi, was a marvelous example of musical writing that includes the organ, practically as one of the voices of the choir. "Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice," is an anthem of significant length, fully developed and superbly fashioned. It begins with a mystical organ Prelude and from there the organ and the choir intwine in most interesting ways. At times the choir sings unaccompanied, at times the organ plays a solo interlude, at times the organ seems to come out of the choir's singing, at times the organ sings with the choir, and at times the choir picks up the organ's music and carries it forward. The overall effect was a fine performance of a unique and beautiful anthem.
Herbert Howells' 1936 Requiem for a cappella chorus was composed shortly after the tragic death of his nine-year-old son. It includes six movements: a sentence from the Book of Common Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the introitus from the Latin Requiem Mass, Psalm 121, a repeat of the Introitus, and a verse from the book of Revelation. Obviously an intimate and gentle work, it was not released for publication until 1980. Howells' use of soloists, split choir, and rich late-romantic harmonies all lead to an exquisite and ethereal experience, and it has been a concert favorite since its first performance. Cantari achieved a quintessential British sound with a nice blend of voices, well-molded phrasing, and careful ensemble. Soloists Amanda Haas, Kathy Tymann, Dale Bailey, Adam Dengler, Clement Joubert, and Jane Thurston all demonstrated the exceptional talent of the individual members of the chorus.
One of the most popular British composers of the early and mid-20th century, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, composed many hymns and anthems for the church. "O clap your hands," is a joyous and energetic setting of Psalms 47, sung here energetically and winsomely.
The concert closed with the rhythmically interesting and exciting anthem, "Let All the People Praise Thee" by William Mathias. On a personal note, I remembered singing this anthem some 20 years or more ago and was surprised that it made such an impression on me that I recognized the music immediately, with the organ introduction. The sound of the organ and the choir performing together with persuasive enthusiasm again left a powerful impression. The applause was vigorous and sustained in appreciation for a finely-designed program and a stirring performance that captured all the promise of the program title: Gems from British Cathedrals.