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A March 4 dress rehearsal involving three Triad-based choirs in Aycock Auditorium was a tantalizing appetizer for an even larger joint venture that took take place in the Isaac Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall in New York City March 7. The Greensboro evening involved the Choral Society of Greensboro, Welborn E. Young conductor; members of four UNC Greensboro choirs conducted by William P. Carroll; and the High Point University Chorus, Billy Summers, conductor. The accomplished pianist was Claire Clark. On March 5, these forces were due to fly to New York City, where they would be joined in Carnegie Hall by three more choirs – Mississippi's Delta State University Chorus, directed by Richard Waters; Maryland's Salisbury University Chorus, directed by William Folger; and Minnesota's Hibbling Community College Chorus, directed by Benjamin Smith. Under the "Carnegie Festival Chorus" rubric, they would be accompanied by the New York City Chamber Orchestra.
About the American composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984), the critic Richard Dyer wrote, "...a composer more often performed than honored." At the Spoleto Festival USA in the early '80s, I found a performance by the Westminster Choir of three selections of the seven poems that make up Frostiana breath-taking in their simple beauty. It took me two decades to find a commercial recording (Koch International Classics 3-7283-2h1), but an online search confirms numerous performances by all sorts of choirs across the country. David Francis Urrows, in notes for the Koch CD, points out that Thompson's "music (has) always borne the mixed blessing of being appreciated to a much greater extent by non-professional musicians than by what Thompson would have termed 'high brows.'"
Thompson and Robert Frost knew each other for years. Since the poet was associated with Amherst, Massachusetts, it was natural that his poetry would be suggested by a 1959 commission to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the town. Thompson selected seven poems that have an overall autumnal and wistful mood. The full choir is used in "The Road Not Taken," "The Telephone" (which features call-and-response from the men and women), and the elaborate "Choose Something like a Star." Women's voices are featured in the lively nature poem "Come in" and the playful "A Girl's Garden." Men sing "The Pasture," which evokes Spring, and the deeply moving "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," with its sound vanishing like a trail disappearing under the snow. Pianist Clark was superb in her evocation of a thrush's call in the treble part accompanying "Come In." The premiere of Frostiana, originally for chorus and piano, took place on October 18, 1959. After the composer retired from Harvard, he orchestrated the entire set in 1965.
Young led the combined choirs for the performance in Aycock Auditorium. About two-thirds of the forces were women. Balance among the sections was excellent, and texts – not provided – were not needed, since the diction was outstanding. The dynamics and phrasing contributed to the maximum impact of the words.
The concert was short and sweet with no intermission. William P. Carroll, long-time choral director at UNCG and in the Triad, directed the brief "Song of Democracy," by Howard Hanson. This was commissioned by the National Education Association and the Music Educators National Conference and premiered in 1959. The texts are excerpts from Walt Whitman's "An Old Man's Thoughts of School" (written for the inauguration of a public school in Camden, NJ, in 1874) and the soaring lines of "Sail, Sail thy best, ship of Democracy" from the fourth part of "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood." Much of the text came through, but Whitman's words are less simple and were less clear than Frost's. Hanson loved the massive sonorities of full orchestra and chorus and scored "Song of Democracy" accordingly. He uses as the germ of the work the harmonic progression found in his well-known "Romantic" Symphony (No. 2). Clark's piano could at best give an abstract of the rich texture. Music lovers would greatly benefit from a repeat of this program with an orchestra.
For the March 7 performance in Carnegie Hall, the Gloria, from Puccini's Messa di Gloria, was added to the program and conducted by Paul Oakley, of Charlotte.