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What a satisfying experience it was to hear a top-notch chorus in an acoustically exciting hall sing beautiful works I had never heard before! This was the case for most of the large audience at Crawford Hall on the UNCSA campus attending the spring concert of the Cantata Singers. Two composers were featured on the program, Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) and the lively septuagenarian Charles Fussell, a Winston-Salem native currently on the faculty of Rutgers University and who was present at the concert.
Four major works of Fussell spanning a decade from 1993 to 2003 were presented by the forty-five voices comprising the Cantata Singers, under the direction of UNCSA faculty member, Nathan Zullinger. The first, "Invocation," references the four elements – earth, water, air, and fire (as love) – in the touching poem by May Sarton.
Guest soloist and UNCSA alumnus Leonard Rowe was featured in two songs, "Sonnet" (poem by Elizabeth Bishop) and "Infinite Fraternity." Rowe has maintained his rich baritone voice which blended splendidly with flutist Sami Eudy and organist Raymond Hawkins. "Infinite Fraternity" (texts of Melville, Hawthorne, and Will Graham) was the high point of the evening for me with the dialogue between Nathanial Hawthorne and Hermann Melville alluding to unrequited love, texts shared by Rowe and the chorus, commented upon by instrumentalists Eudy (flute) and Avital Mazur (viola). The high point of this major work is full of anguish, intoned as unresolved tritons in the viola.
The evening ended with six songs to folk texts taken from American Ballads and Folksongs, unfortunately interrupted by applause between each number, but charming nonetheless. I particularly liked the poignant lullaby, "All the Pretty Little Horses."
Acoustics have always played a primary role in music, obviously in performance, but also high in the composer's mind even at the composition's conception. And so it must surely have been on the mind of Carissimi as he composed for his German and Hungarian Collegium of young Jesuit priests in the thousand-year-old Roman Basilica Sant'Apollinare. The creator of the oratorio, Carissimi is best remembered for the work which filled not only the first half of the program, but indeed, the very acoustically live Crawford Hall, Jephte, based on the story of Jephthah in the Old Testament Book of Judges.
Several soloists sang in Latin the brief parts of narrative or commentary with the longer role of the warrior Jephte being admirably sung by tenor Kevin Periman. The tragic role of his daughter was sung by soprano Alexandra Pawlus with great expression and in the closing song of mourning, with beauty and resignation. The closing chorus "Weep, children of Israel; weep, all ye virgins; and for Jephte's only daughter, lament with songs of sorrow," brought tears to the eyes of many. This was choral singing at its best!