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The Piedmont Chamber Singers, under the competent direction of Dr. Wendy Looker, has matured into a venerable player in the classical music scene of the Piedmont Triad area. For the closing concert of its 33rd season, the PCS joined forces with the Bella Voce chorus from Reagan High School to present a well-received performance of the familiar Requiem by Gabriel Fauré at the lovely Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. This Spring Concert also included other gems from the French repertory by Maurice Ravel and Camille Saint-Saëns as well as a well-chosen group of pieces of a mixed character, sung by the Reagan group.
Three a cappella songs (1916), "Nicolette," "Trois beaux oiseaux de paradis" and "Ronde" by Ravel began the evening and were delightful in their freshness and expressivity. Some random solos in the second of the set of three allowed us to hear the diversity of timbres that comprise the PCS; soprano Claudia Lange had the most understandable French of the evening – fortunately the program gave the English translation of the texts; unfortunately, not the French originals, penned by Ravel himself. A lovely modal song by Saint-Saëns, "Calme des nuits," also sung a cappella, closed the Piedmont Chamber Singers’ section of the first half.
The Reagan High School Bella Voce chorus, masterfully led by Mignon Dobbins, produced a strikingly different sound and superior intonation for their presentation of three songs, accompanied by Norris Norwood on the piano. Ms. Dobbins set the mood for her young charges whose faces reflected the character of the music, especially the bouncy Irish tune, "The Little Beggerman." The young singers are to be congratulated on their fine diction and wide range of dynamics!
Both groups merged for the second half of the concert, blending the bright sound of the teenagers with the warm mature sounds of the Piedmont Chamber Singers. They were complemented by an unusual orchestra, based on the first and second versions of Fauré’s original scoring of the Requiem. What is unusual about the orchestration is the absence of violins, except for an obbligato violin solo in the Sanctus. One immediately thinks of Johannes Brahms’ predilection for the warm somber sound of the violas as shown in the first movement (“Selig sint…”) of his own German Requiem (1869) and the entire Second Serenade, Opus 16.
Fauré’s complete orchestration includes divided violas, divided cellos, bass, horns (we heard two), harp and organ. (He also made occasional use of other brass and bassoons, which were not used in this performance.) And except for a couple moments as noted further on, this was a felicitous combination, warm-toned and well-balanced.
When Fauré composed the second version of his Requiem, he added two movements, "Offertoire" and "Libera me," both for baritone soloist. William Shaller, placed far above the musicians, well off to the audience’s right, was warm and effective, yet dispassionately expressive, as suggested by Fauré himself – “a quiet bass-baritone, of the cantor type…” (quoted in Michael Steinberg's."Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, Op. 48," Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press, 2005, 131–137.)
The other soloist was quite a revelation: the strong dark soprano voice of recent Guilford College graduate, Allison Faulkner, was thrilling and engaging in the "Pie Jesu." More of an operatic voice than an oratorio voice, I could imagine her singing the last act of Manon Lescaut by Puccini – yet all this voice emanates from a slight almost boyish physique! I can foresee a great career for Ms. Faulkner, given continued training and the necessary artistic support.
Unfortunately, contemporary churches are often acoustical dilemmas, catering to the spoken word (requiring minimal reverberation) and relying heavily on electronic technology to enhance the clarity of the words. They are, however, often built with impressive and powerful organs as their principal source of music. The lovely Ardmore Baptist Church shares some of these acoustical idiosyncrasies; with its transepts as wide as the nave and the nave as short as the transepts, it does have its acoustical “sweet spots” and some problem zones, especially for an unamplified concert. The solo violin obbligato in the Sanctus, played by Taya Ricker, was for this listener, in one of those “dead zones” and all but inaudible. Perhaps allowing her to stand might have helped, as she looked energetic and vigorous, and certainly, finding a “sweet spot” would have been to all of our advantage!
The other problem I alluded to earlier comes from the low register of the beautiful Reuter organ, a powerful instrument wonderfully adapted to the acoustics of Ardmore Baptist. The pedal (“faux bourdon”?) is so low and so strong that it tended to muffle the chorus in many of the softer passages. Combined with the chorus’ decision to pronounce the Latin words à la française, the low pedals made it difficult to follow the text.