The North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir gave a clinic in masterful choral singing at the Kenan Recital Hall, Peace College, Raleigh, on Tuesday evening, May 24. The program of all Italian music was introduced by Director Alfred Sturgis as an evening beginning with Italian communion bread and wine (church music), followed after intermission with pasta (some tasty madrigals), and with two Rossini part-songs for dessert. Though it seemed a bit outrageous at the time, his characterization was on the money at the end.
The first half was all music written for the church, but not just any church – the program included works written for St. Mark's in Venice, the Papal Chapel in Rome, and for Naples, Florence, and Milan, centers of renaissance art that were pilgrimage destinations for the world throughout the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries. Most of the pieces chosen for this part of the concert were pretty basic and fairly familiar – works by G. Gabrieli, Palestrina, Scarlatti, Lotti, Pergolesi, Carissimi and Martini were presented in chronological order, mostly. College or even high school choirs perform them, and I have sung all but one of them myself. They were all done superbly, and the introductory commentary by Sturgis added understanding and pleasure to each one. Lotti's "Crucifixus" was exquisite, its delicious dissonance melting into resolution under the fluid and precise baton of the conductor. The women of the chorus sang two selections from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with extraordinary piano accompaniment by Susan Lohr. You could almost hear violins in her sensitive piano playing, and the choir sang those minor seconds sliding against each other so beautifully that the pain of Mary watching the pain of her Son was almost too much.
Another selection that deserves some special attention is "Plotate Filii Israel" from Carissimi's oratorio Jephtha. It was done with organ accompaniment and mostly in homophonic style until near the end, where the chorus repeats in imitative phrases "sing your song of sorrow." This is one of those tragic tales (in the Old Testament) that involves making a bargain; it ends up with Jephtha taking the life of his daughter.
After a rousing performance of Martini's "Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina" (we are definitely in the Baroque here), Sturgis pointed out this would have been a fine ending to the first half, but there was more – from the romantic era. Verdi's "Ave Maria," one of the Four Sacred Pieces, was not written as a church work but is often thought of and performed as such. It is based on an idiomatic scale offered as a challenge in an Italian music magazine. Verdi composed a sensitive and beautiful devotional piece, richly harmonized and remarkably effective. The "Amen" at the end was sung so perfectly that it left me yearning to savor it longer but, alas, applause broke my reverie and the first half of the concert was over.
We must mention a couple of highlights of the second half of the concert. The music of Carlo Gesualdo always amazes contemporary audiences. Gesualdo was a nobleman, wealthy in his own right and therefore not beholden to patrons, the church, or the public. The music he wrote – apparently only for his own artistic gratification – is amazingly modern and experimental, with jolting key shifts, jarring dissonance and other daring maneuvers. His madrigal "Moro lasso" contains all the above while at the same time brilliantly expressing the words of the text.
Two 20th-century madrigals by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) found their way into the program through Sturgis's research, and they rewarded the audience tremendously. Rich harmony, expressive text painting, and knowledgeable use of vocal capabilities produced sweet pleasure. I would love to hear more of this composer.
The concert closed with a couple of showpieces, presumably written as salon entertainments by the semi-retired Rossini in his later years – "I Gondolieri" (The Gondoliers) and "La Passegiata" (The Excursion). They were both delicious. Imagine The Barber of Seville compressed into about five minutes of pure sparkles! The chorus relished the pleasure of these pieces, but the star of the show was Lohr and her absolutely incredible piano performance. She was all over the keyboard with everything from gentle arpeggios to Rossini ump-pah-pah vamps to full-hand runs so fast I thought only a computerized piano could do them. The audience gave her an ovation after "The Gondoliers" that required her to get up from the piano three times to acknowledge the continued applause. I am still overwhelmed when I think about it.
The NCMC Chamber Choir was outstanding; it was remarkably at home with the Italian and the Latin, precise with both pitch and rhythm, and artistically at a peak that raises the bar for all area choral organization. Of course this is an ensemble of 22 singers, handpicked from the larger chorale, and not every chorus can attract this level of talent. Neither do many groups have a maestro like Al Sturgis at the helm.
Let me end with a personal note about the power of music in general and of great singing in particular. I went to this event quite worn out and in a bit of a sour mood, but I left it energized and invigorated! It was just that kind of concert. That said, I wish weekday programs were scheduled at 7:00 or maybe 7:30 p.m. Those who enjoy dining out after concerts are often hard-pressed to find good places open late on weeknights. Then, too, there are those with work or classes the next day. In this case we found our favorite pub still open, and all was well – but earlier starts make sense to me!