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On the afternoon of May 4, in Baldwin Auditorium, the Choral Society of Durham, which under the leadership of Rodney Wynkoop is arguably the Triangle's finest large choir, offered a superb program of mostly unusual fare for chorus and orchestra. In the last three pieces, the distinguished mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer was the featured soloist. And if that weren't enough, Duke-based David Heid, often heard accompanying major singers, was the featured pianist in the concluding work.
The program got underway not with music but with a slide show of sorts, presided over by Wynkoop, who demonstrated that his lecture-hall manner is every bit as convincing as his conducting. The subject was Itaipu ( http://www.itaipu.gov.py/ or http://www.itaipu.gov.br/ ), the immense dam and power plant that sits astride the Paraná River between Paraguay and Brazil and that is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The facility is the subject of a large and complex score titled "Itaipu," composed by Philip Glass for Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, that received what was surely its regional premiere on this occasion.
Baldwin is a happy choice for CSD concerts for several reasons, not least of which are that it can accommodate an orchestra of substantial size and it is a reasonably good room, acoustically. On this occasion, the stage was packed - with members of the orchestra, a piano, pre-positioned for the concert's final work (and used, too, as part of the ensemble in the opening one), two harps, and around 125 singers who, due to space constraints, were obliged to stand for the entire concert.
This is Glass, but the four-movement score moved along with considerable dispatch, and it was indeed both fascinating and amazing to observe (and to hear) it unfold. The musicians - instrumentalists and singers and Wynkoop, too - had a workout, and this scribe's wrists soon began to ache sympathetically, just from watching the repetitions, of which there are, of course, many, including repeats within repeats.... To keep things coordinated (there were few evident glitches), the conductor used a little flip chart, taped to the podium, that gave measure or rehearsal numbers to all concerned. This Glass is different from a lot of Glass that people may have heard, for it is clothed in orchestral garb and uses a much larger choir than is the composer's norm. The texts are in a fairly obscure version of Guarani. The choir sounded impressive. The orchestra's playing was impressive. The work made a remarkably monumental impression, in keeping with the structure that inspired it. And the intermission, which came after about forty minutes of richly varied and demanding music, was most welcome - to the musicians and, perhaps, to some members of the audience. This is, for want of a better word, a humdinger of a piece, and the performance, which surged almost hydraulically from start to finish, was tremendously exciting. I'm tempted to say it was Wynkoop & Company's greatest single achievement to date, but then that would short-change the rest of the show, which was radically different but in its own way every bit as impressive. (Readers who wish to check out the orchestration and read more about "Itaipu" should see http://www.chester-novello.com/work/6669/main.html [inactive 1/04].)
Brahms' Alto Rhapsody is an extraordinary work that requires an extraordinary soloist, but it is otherwise easier to produce than, say, the more-often-heard German Requiem . Beer spent the weekend in the Triangle and was one of six soloists in the NC Symphony's last subscription concerts of the current season - on which occasions another short Brahms choral work was also sung. In Durham, she was radiant in every respect, and the men of the CSD acquitted themselves admirably. The ladies had their moment next, in Debussy's ethereal "Blessèd Damozel" ("La Demoiselle élue"); here the chief attractions were Beer, and the women's voices, scrupulously prepared, and the playing of the orchestra, headed by Concertmaster Paul Gorski, which sounded convincingly French throughout. Two harps were again used, and one of them was played by a freshly-minted Ph.D. - Dr. Emily Laurance.
The concert's grand finale represented a decidedly different change of pace. Music by Constant Lambert, in his time one of the great conductors (he was Music Director of Sadler's Wells Ballet, which became London's Royal Ballet), composers, and writers on music, is rarely heard in America, although a member of his family spent some time here, in the early 19th century. (For the record, Constant's father was George, who made a career as a landscape painter in Australia, and his son was Kit, who "discovered" and managed The Who.) Lambert's "The Rio Grande" is a setting for piano solo, mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra of one of Sacheverell Sitwell's bits of wildly evocative poetry. One website reminds us that Sitwell is best known "for his collaboration with William Walton on Façade " - at least two numbers of which are almost certainly by Lambert(!) - but the "Rio" text is longer than any of those and in many respects far more imaginatively set. There is in it a bit of everything that a well-traveled Englishman might have experienced in what program annotator Susan Dakin says is "an imaginary Brazilian city on an imaginary river." The result is a sometimes-riotous confection that gives Gershwin's classical jazz pieces a real run for their money. Heid dazzled from start to finish, making the interludes mini-cadenzas of breath-taking brilliance. Beer evoked the last vestiges of Empire in ways that suggested the singers in Lambert's own recordings of the piece, and CSD vocalists Lynn Wilson and Chad Kearsely added brief bits of additional color. The percussion-heavy orchestra never verged into excess noise, and among the many outstanding instrumental solos was one by cellist Jonathan Kramer, of NCSU and the Mallarmé Chamber Players. The choral singing was - predictably - crisp and precise, and the words emerged clearly from the sonic mass. It was a romp, in many respects, and it capped a fine season for the CSD, bringing the enthusiastic audience full circle on this occasion from a dammed-up river to a make-believe one, with hints of salvation and glimpses of heaven in between.
This program stood out from many others since it was announced last fall, and there were no disappointments. Among other things, it served as yet another bit of evidence that Wynkoop is not only our finest regional choral director but also ranks among our finest maestri of music, period.
This concert was dedicated to the memory of Kathy Malin, a CSD singer since 1991 who died the previous week.
For more information about the Choral Society of Durham, see http://www.choral-society.org/ .