The North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir, under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, is one of the premier vocal ensembles of the Triangle and beyond. They are a hand-picked group of nineteen voices and have been singing together with very little personnel change for ten or so years. Rehearsals for this group are not a time to learn notes but are dedicated to the shaping of phrases, the timing of entrances, the tricks of unfamiliar languages (such as Medieval English), and other such subtleties that make for a polished choral performance. Add to this Susan McClaskey Lohr, who has proved her excellence as an accompanist on many occasions, and the results are concerts of consistently high quality and frequent treats to treasure that few other choruses can manage.
This program, "Rule Britannia," designed two years ago, just happened to coincide with the Queen's visit to the US though her presence, as Sturgis pointed out, was not possible because of a conflict with the President's dinner at the White House. The first half of the program began and ended with anthems written for royalty: choruses from Queen Mary's Birthday Ode by Henry Purcell to open and from Handel's "Zadok, the Priest," from Coronation Anthems, in conclusion. In between were couplings of anthems to the same texts by different composers.
As heard in St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Purcell's choruses were crisp, clear, and the epitome of all the glory of the Tudor period. It was also "the proof in the pudding" of the excellent ensemble of this chorus. Handel's "Zadok" was very nicely sung, but while Lohr was virtuosic at the piano, it lost some of its majesty and pomp without the orchestral or at least organ and trumpet accompaniment.
The first couplet was to the text "O Taste and See" (from Psalm 34). John Goss, organist at St. Paul's in London for some 40 years, had influence on a great number of the 19th and 20th century Anglican composers of hymns, anthems and Psalm chants. His setting of the anthem is the kind of music that lets you know almost immediately you are in an Anglican (or Episcopal) church. Organist Kevin Kerstetter (of St. Michael's) accompanied the choir for this anthem and on a couple of others that followed. The setting of "O Taste and See" by Vaughan Williams is one of the exquisite choral gems of the 20th century. It is brevity and simplicity to perfection with modest overlapping imitative passages and an ethereal soprano solo.
Settings of "Ave Verum Corpus" by William Byrd and Edward Elgar were next, both reflecting and honoring the text of this Eucharist anthem. "If you love me" by 16th-century Thomas Tallis and 20th-century Philip Wilby contrasted the styles of church music differing by over 300 years of musical development. Both were moving and meaningful, but it is very hard to hear any anthem to this text without comparing it to the Tallis masterpiece.
Two settings of "Jubilate Deo" (from Psalm 100) were from 20th century composers: William Mathias and William Walton. The latter's setting is more developed, employing the contrast of solo, duet and small ensemble with the full chorus. Both versions are appropriately lively and joyful, but again, the singing in the Walton was the more impressive.
The first piece of the second half of the concert was Michael Tippett's setting of a text by Percy Bysshe Shelly titled simply "Music." It is one of those motets that could have been sung at a St Cecelia celebration, its rich harmony and inventive counterpoint demonstrating the beauty and emotional power of music as expressed in the poetry. Lohr provided the ravishing piano accompaniment.
The remaining pieces on the program were sung a cappella. Robert Lucas Pearsal, dating from the early romantic era, provided a surprisingly rich harmony in "Lay a Garland." Two unaccompanied part-songs ("Two Songs to be Sung of a Summer Night by the Water") by Frederick Delius reflected a dreamy and nostalgic experience with their wordless meandering. The second song provided the only occasion I caught for a miscue of pitch and ensemble at the very difficult rhythmic and chromatic start which, however, fell into place within a measure or two.
C. V. Stanford's "The Blue Bird" and Gerald Finzi's "Three Short Elegies" (poetry by William Drummond of Hawthorndon, 1585-1659) were beautiful and interesting treats. There were no notes in the program, though Sturgis filled in a little of the background. The soloists were not identified and texts were provided for only three of the works sung. It is to be hoped that these missing elements, whether oversights or due to time constraints or cost-cutting measures, will be considered in the future.
The program closed with Sacred and Profane, Op. 91 (Eight Medieval Lyrics), the last work for professionals completed by Benjamin Britten. It is a set of five profane and three sacred song settings of Old English poetry. Though a long-time admirer of Britten's choral music, this is one I had never heard before, and what a joy it was. Filled with daring harmonies and quirky rhythms, it employs some of the genius Britten had already shown. He seemed to be fond of doing two things at once, as in the second act scene of Peter Grimes where the church service going on in the background comments tellingly on the interaction between Ellen and Peter. (I've always wondered if Britten got this concept from Charles Ives.) In the second section of Sacred and Profane, there are three things going on. If I remember correctly, the sopranos sang the first two lines while at the same time the bases and tenors sang the last two lines and the altos ended the piece with the Old English text, which is translated, "And I must go mad." In the seventh section, "When I see on the Cross Jesu, my lover," the altos, tenors, and bases are singing in a tight harmony in the lower range and the sopranos enter in the stratosphere with a spine-chilling effect. The Britten piece was a virtuosic and powerful performance that shall not and should not be forgotten. Thanks, Maestro Sturgis. Thanks, NCMC Chamber Choir.