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Those who were present in Peace College's Kenan Hall for the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir's first concert of this season know what some lovers of music do not: that human voices, singing together, can bring to vibrant life some of the most beautiful, powerful musical expression great composers have ever created. As if the exceptional choral music were not enough, four outstanding instrumentalists — Susan McClaskey Lohr, pianist and regular accompanist for the Choir; violinist Dovid Friedlander, Assistant Concertmaster of the NC Symphony; clarinetist Christopher Grymes, of East Carolina University, and Richard Motylinski, principal percussionist of the NC Symphony — added their great skills as soloists in the choral works on the program. Handbell ringers Martine Bullard, Phyllis O'Keef, Melissa Skiver, and Julie Spitzer also made important contributions in one of the pieces.
Under the precise, sensitive direction of Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis, these combined forces presented works primarily of modern and contemporary composers, but opened the program with Vivaldi's exquisite "Laetatus Sum," in which the choir revealed its ability to sustain predominantly long, legato lines of transparent beauty, uncluttered with heavy vibrato. Friedlander's violin sang quite short, quick, often-staccato phrases in great contrast to the choral lines. The following piece, popular contemporary composer John Rutter's setting of "The Lord is My Light and My Salvation" (Ps. 97), is a study in clean, homogeneous unison singing from the lovely, contemplative opening phrases to the more active concluding passages, with their faster tempo, staggered entrances, polyphonic texture, and rich harmony. The entire piece was a showcase of vocal beauty and excellent choral technique. Grymes' superb clarinet playing of the seemingly unending lines accompanying the choir was the perfect complement to the singers' elegant performance.
From this point in the concert to the rousing finale, the singers and players presented choral music of increasing complexity and difficulty. All the rhythmic and harmonic demands of these pieces were in response to the powerful language of the poetry they set. An example of this contemporary style is Czech composer Antonin Tucapsky's masterful setting of Ted Hughes' great poem "The Seven Sorrows." The composer delineates each of the sorrows in a way that distinguishes it from the others, and the singers and violinist Friedlander's expressive playing made sure his intentions were clear.
The work before intermission, William Mathias' setting of Dylan Thomas' searing poem "Ceremony after a Fire Raid," with its fearful images of death and anguish caused by Nazi bombing raids over London, called forth every bit of energy and musical intelligence possessed by all singers and instrumentalists involved in its performance. The choir, required to whisper some of the text, speak other parts, and sing the difficult, harshly dissonant climactic lines describing the poet's most terrifying recollections, met all challenges, as did Lohr at the piano and Motylinski, a one-man percussion section moving quickly from one set of drums, gongs, and hammered instruments to another.
The second half of the concert was even more musically spectacular than the first. The beautiful performance of Bengt Johansson's "Double Madrigal: Live with Me and Love's Answer," a refreshing combination of Elizabethan poetry in a modern harmonic setting, was followed by the two most demanding works on the program. Eric Whitacre's setting of Octavio Paz's "Cloudburst" is a gem of poetic and musical creativity and a performance challenge for any choir, which must portray with speech and song and snapping fingers the increasingly intense fall of the rain. The choir, complemented by the handbell ringers and by percussionist Motylinski with his parallel metal sheets called "thunder sheets," effectively evoked the rainfall and its myriad noises. One especially inventive choral technique appears early in the music, when first one singer and then each of the others begin to sing, making the choral texture more dense as more singers take part in the very dissonant tone painting. The lovely solos by Angeline Glasgow, soprano, and Jim Smith, bass, contributed much to the listeners' enjoyment of this piece.
Perhaps the most inventive of all the choral works on the program is "His Fluid Aria," Jacob Avshalomov's clever, humorous choral realization of his wife Doris' depiction of a whale pursuing his mate as they frolic in the ocean in springtime. The bull whale, with his songs of love, is clearly compared to the operatic tenor. To make this work a convincing evocation of whale courtship, the choir, along with Grymes on bass clarinet, had to interject some rather believable whale song into the musical texture. The piece in its entirety was very effectively performed, with singers and listeners entertained by the composer's whimsy.
The last two works on the program, the traditional songs "Dry Bones" and "Bile Them Cabbage Down," were full of rollicking, toe-tapping rhythms and irresistible harmonies that tempted the audience to sing along with the performers. Lohr's obvious delight in playing both pieces and Motylinski's very effective percussion contribution in the first provided some of the most enjoyable music of the evening. The solo work of bass Lewis Moore, baritone Michael Trexler, and tenor Bob Garver added excitement and pleasure to "Dry Bones," and Garver sang with power and effect in "Bile Them Cabbage Down."