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Although it was a couple of days early for the new season, both the weather and the audience proved plenty warm and spring-like. The North Carolina State University Chorale appeared at one of their favorite venues, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, in a reprise of their visit there a year ago. In both instances Nathan Leaf conducted with steadfast help from accompanist, Thomas Koch. The program notes billed this group as "the premier choral ensemble at NC State University." The singers, along with Leaf and Koch, went far toward justifying that accolade.
Opening with the great "Regina Coeli" of Mozart, they featured striking work by four members as soloists and in quartet mode. Following was an outstanding and seldom-heard number by Vaughan Williams, "Serenade to Music," with no fewer than thirteen soloists demonstrating the high quality of the voices in the ensemble. It is rare that one hears a piece where the accompaniment is so prominent. Indeed, Koch's piano led with a multi-page solo before the singers entered, and it was integral throughout. (This work should be programmed more often. The extended text is lifted from Act V of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, wherein Lorenzo offers to Shylock's daughter, Jessica, a disquisition on the nature of music. Within this lengthy quotation is the entire text of yet another powerful choral piece, "The Man That Hath No Music," by the composer Jean Berger. "The man that hath no music in himself / … / Let no such man be trusted." When it comes to selecting mighty texts, Vaughan Williams probably has no peer among English-language composers.)
Two other top-notch a cappella works highlighted the program. For his "Threshold of Night," the English composer Tarik O'Regan (b. 1978) has chosen a text from Kathleen Raine's Three Poems of Incarnation, part of a huge 2007 work that has won heavy praise. Here Leaf and the singers elicited the maximum from these stirring words as the men repeatedly intoned "Go back my child to the rain and the storm, …for sorrow or pain…," while the women replied "I will not go back for sorrow or pain, …for hate or sin…" The Swedish composer, Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960), furnished "Aftonen" (The Evening). "The evening sun's blush silently sinks / Sinks down into the calm, clear waves." This inspiring piece was characterized by repeated magnificent humming refrains.
The crowd-pleasing "Goin' Home: Hymns, Spirituals and Folksongs" section of the evening opened with the old staple, "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal," by that great champion of early American songs, Alice Parker. Two giants of spiritual arrangements, Harry T. Burleigh and William Dawson, contributed "My Lord, What A Mornin'" and "Soon Ah Will Be Done." Called the "Four-Handed Finale," Mack Willberg's arrangement of "Cindy" featured clapping, foot stomping and yelling, all accompanied by co-pianists Koch and Daniel Salo.
What more pleasing and appropriate way could the singers and the audience have chosen to usher in a season of fresh beginnings?