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This concert purported to be a study of "Poetry in Music," in other words, poetry finding its fulfillment in a musical setting. Many poets over time have expressed their goal as an attempt to shape their words into music or other art forms. When a poet shapes his (or her) words into music in a chapel setting, you have sacred music – the primary menu of this program.
The Duke Evensong Singers, one of three resident choirs at Duke Chapel, performs under the baton of founder and Duke Chapel organist Christopher Jacobson. The thirty-member choir is a blend of students, volunteers, and professional singers, all offering excellent voices and vocal skills. The singers' accompanying organ soloist is the highly acclaimed Scott Dettra.
The concert began with W. H. Auden's "The Twelve," laying out the life-changing experiences of the disciples. The poem and the music by William Walton, Auden's friend and fellow alumnus of Christ Church, Oxford, were commissioned in 1965 by Dean Cuthbert Simpson. The choir combined Auden's setting of the disciples' humble beginning, the spread of the gospel message, and the disciples' suffering and martyrdom. The piece closes with the triumphant charge to "praise them all with a merry noise." The choir was full-voiced and filled the chapel with glorious sounds. Soloists who sang from the choir were each superb with pleasing vocal timbre.
John Rutter's setting of "Hymn to the Creator of Light," a poem by seventeenth-century poets Lancelot Andrewes and Johann Frank, is without doubt Rutter's finest and most ascendant achievement. The performance was beautiful with sensitivity to the meaning of the words and the spirituality of the experience.
Next on the program was a setting of the traditional Te Deum and Jubilate, texts loosely attributed to St. Augustine. The Duke Evensong Singers commissioned British composer Joanna Marsh to create a setting of this powerful hymn of praise for both liturgical and concert use. The resulting music was sung with vigor by the choir, while the organ wove enhancement. A blazing "amen" brought this world-premiere performance to a fierce conclusion.
While the singers took a break offstage, Dettra demonstrated the awesome power and majesty of the organ with a stunning performance of Walton's "Orb and Sceptre" as arranged by William McKie. It was the kind of music and performance that made me feel like I was floating off the pew.
The "Poetry in Music" program continued with Elizabeth Poston's seasonally popular and timelessly beloved carol, "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree." Sung tenderly, the simple melody communicates Christ as the source of life and spiritual growth. Henry Longfellow published "The Arrow and the Song" in 1845. It compares the flight of an arrow shot through the air with a song sung out into the world, touching listeners near and far.
The Evensong Singers' performance of "Nowell Sing We" (by an anonymous 15th-century poet) featured a spiky setting of music by Matthew Martin from 2014. The exuberant interaction between choir and organ was catchy.
The choral music of Sir William Henry Harris holds a special place with singers and listeners alike for its elegance and vivid textual evocations. His fascination with the poetry of John Donne culminated in his 1959 anthem for double choir, "Bring Us, O Lord God." Often saving his most ethereal writing for his climactic "amens," Harris concludes this transcendent work in a strikingly beautiful resolution of heavenly peace, fully captured and delivered to Duke Chapel by the Duke Evensong Singers.
The program came to a boisterous conclusion with Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's "Blest Pair of Sirens," a setting of the poem by John Milton. Remember Jerusalem in the movie Chariots of Fire? – this performance was pretty much the same thing. The choir was powerful and glorious, especially with the organ undergirding the voices
Leaving the chapel after the concert, I felt I had been given a transfusion of British blood. Did I sneak into the Last Night of the Proms? Impossible! Why am I craving Beef Wellington? When I wake up, will it be Tuesday? Anyway, it was an outstanding concert.