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Tired of the same old stuff, the same oratorios, choruses, orchestral warhorses? Check out one of the Triangle's best-kept secrets - Women's Voices Chorus. Twice a year, Mary Lycan, who is among our region's most innovative and resourceful artists, leads the select Chapel Hill-based women's ensemble in outstanding music that, it's safe to say, most of us have never heard - or even heard of . This was surely the case on May 7, when the group's spring concert paid tribute to our northern neighbors in a program titled "Glorious and Free: Sounds of Canada." The compositions ranged from native songs from Huron sources, French-Canadian folk material, and what Lycan's superb program notes revealed is "the earliest preserved piece by a Canadian composer" to works by composers many of us may have guessed were of US origin to new scores by living creators. The concert was given in the presence of Louis Boisvert, Canada's Consul and Senior Trade Representative (who happens to be based in Raleigh!).
The program began with a remarkable three-part processional that encompassed a 1950 transcription by Margaret Sargent of the Huron song "Hayuwehahe," sung and danced by a small (seven-person) ensemble at the front of University United Methodist Church, followed by the entry of roughly half of the choir, singing the French-Canadian voyageur song "En roulant ma boule," which originated with canoeists who took explorers, fur traders, and missionaries into the country, and ending with a sample of "Sacrae familiae," attributed to Fr. Charles-Amador Martin (1648-1711), which is the aforementioned earliest-known Canadian piece. A stunning Huron carol, derived from a 16th-century French melody, brought the "historical" portion of the program to a glorious close as the audience was invited to join in on the last verse.
Top billing went to music by living composers, including Ruth Watson Henderson (b.1932) and Eleanor Daley (b.1955). The other works given were composed or arranged by men, and the names of several of them rang bells. These included the immensely popular Healey Willan and R. Nathaniel Dett, whose Ordering of Moses occupies a position in the oratorio realm that is comparable to William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony . Given that Canada is, like the USA, a nation of immigrants, it came as no great surprise that several of the composers were born in England. It was helpful to be reminded, too, that Dett spent years of his life at Hampton Institute in Virginia and at Bennett College, in Greensboro.
But first things first. A Gloria by Henderson, with organ and piano accompaniment by Jane Lynch and Deborah Coclanis, respectively, proved far less traditional than one might have expected. It is a large, complex, and often daring score with considerable harmonic inventiveness, and it made a tremendous impression. So, too, did her arrangement of Three Maritime Folk Songs, given toward the end of the program, which featured superior oboe playing by Bo Newsome. The gentle texts of these were revealing, in and of themselves, since the words are attributed to Newfoundland fishermen and sailors; they are devoid of much of the salt one might have thought would be part and parcel of their fabric. Soloists Virginia Byers Kraus and Lauren Ray were heard to good advantage in the lyrical first two numbers, and a delightful ditty about the murderer of a drake - the perpetrator is heaped with invective that would make Albrerich, of Das Rheingold fame, think twice - showed the whole chorus in top form.
The two important scores by Daley were "The Gate of the Year," premiered in February in Salt Lake City, which is a profoundly moving setting of the poem read on Christmas Day, 1939, by England's King George VI - it's a timely and singularly appropriate work for a nation at war - and the three-part Rose Trilogy , based on poems by Burns and O'Reilly and from the anonymous "Green Willow." The soloists in the former work were Anne Menkens, Ray, and Lila Rosa; in the latter, Menkens, Patty Daniel, and Rosa performed. Rose Trilogy (2002) encompasses an impressive range of styles and moods, running from the upbeat and folk-like "[O my Luve's like] A Red, Red Rose" to the passionate and urgent "White Rose" (as in "...the red rose is a falcon,/and the white rose is a dove") to the forceful and grim finale, "The Lost Rose." One could hardly have asked for more than the singers gave these works, and both were warmly applauded.
These tributes to living composers were interspersed with other, shorter scores, each of which showed the current proficiency of the choir, which is outstanding. Herbert A. Fricker's "Sleep, Holy Babe," reflected his love of Bach, and Willan's "O Queen of Hearts," sung by a chamber choir called the "Spring Ensemble," reflected his admiration of plainchant. Both composers hailed from England but ended their careers as Canadians. Dett's exceptionally beautiful and touching "Listen to the Lambs," perhaps his best-known work, featured soprano Menkens with the choir. The Spring Ensemble delivered "Vus vet zayn," an anon. Yiddish melody arranged by Stephen Hatfield, in the process demonstrating once again "the diversity of Canada's immigrant population." (Here and elsewhere I am indebted to Lycan's notes.)
At the mid-point, the choir sang the French version of "O Canada" and the audience joined in with the English words. And toward the end of the first half (there was no formal intermission), Newsome and Coclanis (who doubles as alto in the choir) demonstrated great artistry and skill in the first movement of Srul Irving Glick's Oboe Sonata, which this listener knew only from oboe recital CDs.
It was, in retrospect, a superb program, one that must rank among the best yet offered by Women's Voices Chorus. Check our series tabs later this summer for news of the ensemble's plans for 2004-5.