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Choral Music Review Print

Romance and Music Filled the Air

February 9, 2008 - Raleigh, NC:

The fine singers of the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir, conducted by Dr. Alfred E. Sturgis, Music Director, were very much on their mettle in their excellent performance of Johannes Brahms' Neue Liebeslieder Walzer (New Love-Song Walzes), Op. 65, and a number of immortal love songs from American popular music of the 1930s to the delight of a very large, appreciative audience. No one in the Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College went away disappointed, unless you count those people who would have liked to hear many more of the vintage popular tunes.

The fifteen Brahms songs were in many ways a great pleasure to hear. The Chamber Choir grasped the composer's complex harmonies and sophisticated rhythms and presented sound interpretations of the darkly romantic, often moody texts of many of the songs. But in some pieces the singers lagged a bit behind the beat, so clearly set by Sturgis. Also, in songs calling for forte singing the sopranos sang too loud, and very frequently individual voices stood out, distracting the audience from the rich color produced by the other parts. In piano and mezzo-piano settings, however, there was no lack of cohesion between sopranos and the three other parts, resulting in passages of stunning, beautiful choral sound.

Solo performers in a number of the songs deserve a great deal of credit here, especially Jim Smith's expressive singing in No. 4, Debra Murphy's lovely, light voice in No. 6; and Deborah Kloos' beautiful lyric soprano and superb phrasing in No. 9. Moreover, the four-hand piano accompaniment offered by Susan McClaskey Lohr and Tom Lohr was itself worth the price of admission. Their superb playing was very supportive of the singers as well as indicative of their own considerable skills. No pianists who play these demanding pieces well can ever be praised enough.

The second half consisted of choral arrangements of love songs from the 1930’s, both accompanied and a capella. Providing (the strong accompaniment were Susan McClaskey Lohr, piano; Alec Sturgis, guitar; Robbie Link, bass; and Ed Butler, drums. The accompanied opening tunes, "Paper Moon" and "Moonglow," were upbeat, warm choral arrangements showcasing the smooth harmony and sophisticated singing style which are hallmarks of 1930’s popular songs. The equally upbeat "This Can't be Love" was also exciting for singers and instrumentalists alike and received a warm response from the audience. The songs that reached the hearts of the audience most deeply, however, were the slow, poignant, sadly-sweet "Body and Soul," "My Funny Valentine," and "I'll Be Seeing You," in which the extremely close harmony, fitting so well with the words, caused many eyes to glisten and throats to tighten in response.

Some fine solo treatments were also included in this part of the program. One of the best of these was Al Sturgis's version of the witty "They All Laughed," in which his excellent baritone voice, strong stage presence and ease of presentation greatly pleased his listeners. Other singers, too, received very positive audience responses, especially Wanda Ramm, whose low, seductive voice and her ability to shift gears into a sizzling belting style heated up the room in "Stormy Weather"; and "Bei mir, bist du schon," sung with superb style by Debra  Murphy, Johanna O'Dell and Jennifer Seiger.

The second part of this program was a delight for all who heard it and for the singers who presented it. In the popular love songs of the 1930s the Chamber Choir has found a musical niche that cannot be taken from them by any group of comparable size and skill that I have had the privilege of hearing. The performers' great ability to sing the tight harmony and respond to the complex rhythm characteristic of these songs, their careful articulation of all texts, and their feel for all the music in this outstanding repertoire is at present unmatched in this musical community. Their conductor deserves much of the credit for this success, for their perfect intonation, rhythm, phrasing and diction could not have been achieved without his obviously painstaking work on all these important details.

As they reluctantly filed out, many audience members offered the best review the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir could have wished, affirming enthusiastically that this concert was a delight and that no one should have missed it. I can offer no better praise.