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As director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, Scott Allen Jarrett had a limited number of large instruments to work with in preparing their choral concert at Myers Park Baptist Church. There was the church organ, and when Robert Frazier wasn't playing that, a grand piano open and ready to make more secular sounds. Then, of course, there were the 100+ voices who collectively form the mighty Oratorio Singers, the official chorus of the Charlotte Symphony. But Jarrett called attention to one more instrument at his disposal: he played the hall itself. For the marquee piece on the program, Herbert Howells' Requiem, he kept the Singers in the chancel, as far from the audience as possible, so the sound reaching us would be soothing and consoling. Jarrett also stationed the Singers in the chancel for the preceding vespers hymn by Charles Wood, "Hail gladdening light," and for the concluding piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Lord Thou hast been our refuge," adapted from Psalm 90. Between the Howells and the Vaughan Williams, however, Jarrett brought the whole ensemble forward for Johannes Brahms's setting of Schiller's poem, "Nänie."
Within its ten lines, "Hail, gladdening light" acquainted us with a handy sampling of the choir's emotional range, surprising the uninitiated at first with a rather submissive ending of the first stanza, "Jesus Christ our Lord!" As the music proceeded to "The lights of evening round us shine," the mood grew suddenly exultant before settling into the predictable reverence of "We hymn the Father." If the meaning of the final pronoun and verb in "Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own" was highly nebulous (rhyming with "alone" was a higher priority for translator John Keble than clarity or antecedents), the musical majesty at the summit of the closing "Worthiest art thou" stanza was unmistakable.
There was no lack of clarity in the text Howells compiled and adapted for his Requiem, merely a curious mishmash of styles and languages – traditional and modern, Latin and English. All inconsistencies were smoothed over by the comforting sounds of solace and reconciliation from the choir, wafting over the organ. That balm was slightly delayed by the solemnity of the opening "Salvator mundi" section, which seemed to have all four parts of the chorus singing in the low-to-middle area of their tessituras. The music flowered more brightly in the ensuing "Psalm 23," initiated by soprano Carole Whittington, with alto Mary Katheryn Monteith and then tenor Michael Trammell layering on. As the choir returned for the second half of the Psalm, at the familiar, "Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death," the full benefit of their placement in the chancel became manifest, as the space between us blended and homogenized the voices in a soft, satisfying sublimation.
The Latin "Requiem aeternam" text was sung by the full chorus as the third and fifth sections of the service. Sandwiched between and around them were "Psalm 121," with both Trammell and baritone Phil Bugaiski singing its signature "I will lift mine eyes unto the hills" opening line, and "I heard a voice from heaven" from the Book of Common Prayer. Four solo voices combined in delivering that good news, including Bugaiski's, reassuring us that "blessed are the dead which die in the Lord."
Voices seem to come with exquisite delicacy from afar at the start of "Nänie," beautifully lamenting that beauty must die. So Jarrett's idea of moving the chorus forward, winding around Frazier at the piano, sounded a bit questionable at first. Yet the piece builds rapidly on the arrival of the hero Adonis in the underworld and again, once we learn that the gods and goddesses are weeping, in the final quatrain of the funeral song. In the onslaught of these upsurges of feeling, we found that the forward placement of the choir enhanced the effect of the broader dynamic range, clarifying the various parts which, in the German, already threaten to become an indecipherable echo gumbo. With a nod to Charlotte Symphony director Christopher Warren-Green, seated in the back row, Jarrett declared that this simplified performance was a mere foretaste of the full orchestral version to be performed with Warren-Green at the podium in an all-Brahms concert on April 1-2. Further rehearsals will occur in the interim, but few major – or even minor – refinements seem necessary for the choristers.
With the choir back in the chancel – and Frazier back at the organ – the Vaughan Williams setting had the effect of formalizing the occasion, with a consonant theme and a processional fullness that radiated finality from its opening words. In Vaughan Williams' concept, they bear repeating, for his chorale is capped by a grand circling back to the opening two verses of the Psalm, "Lord, Thou has been our refuge," before finishing with the final two soaring verses, "And the glorious Majesty of the Lord be upon us" and the concluding supplication. The strength and sweetness of the choir made these last words also seem like a blessing.