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The Bel Canto Company, led by the company's artistic director Welborn Young, rounded out the 2013-14 season with a program inspired by Jewish culture. The concert took place, fittingly enough, in Temple Emanuel on Greene Street. The evening's music was an eclectic mix of thorny and beautiful – let it be clearly said that the group does not shy away from music that is extremely challenging.
The program began with three psalm settings. The opening "Yih'yu L'ratzon" (Psalm 19) by Gershon Kingsley (b.1922) was somber and stunning, effectively featuring two sopranos – Hillary Webb (in the balcony) and Sarah Chowning (at the front of the temple) – Webb singing in Hebrew, Chowning, English. The two were accompanied by BCC pianist Karen Beres; her solid and colorful playing added immensely to the program throughout the evening.
"Richte Mich, Gott" (Psalm 43) by Felix Mendelssohn followed without pause. This a cappella setting utilized the entire ensemble with passages that often contrasted the male with the female voices. "I Will Lift Mine Eyes" (Psalm 121) by Jake Runestad (b.1986), also sung without accompaniment, gave the ensemble a wonderful vehicle to display its impressive rich blend in some close harmonies.
Following the psalm settings, the ensemble turned to two settings from Song of Songs (also known as Song of Solomon). A jaunty and rhythmically fun section punctuated by Beres' lively accompaniment served as bookends to "Hark, My Love" by Judith Shatin (b.1949). If this piece, written two years ago, was the newest composition on the program, Ivo Antognini's "I Am the Rose of Sharon" was arguably the most difficult. This a cappella number contains tonal clusters and asks the ensemble to pick notes out of thin air. Young's sensitive direction aided in the dynamic presentation of this impressive piece.
The first half concluded with three prayers and gave homage to Yiddish theatre influence. Kurt Weill's "Kiddush" featured baritone Jason Barrios and tenor Mikell Wooten as soloists with John Alexander on organ. This funky piece is an interesting blend of stage and temple, with some prominent (and dissonant) organ passages.
"Prayer Before Sleep," from Talmud Suite by Sid Robinovitch (b.1942), featured unison singing from the men at the outset; eventually, other forces joined in, creating a full choral sound in the unaccompanied number. Some tuning problems did not detract from the overall effect.
Bernstein's "Hashkiveinu" again featured organist Alexander as well as Gerald Whittington as soloist. After a false start, Young kept the ensemble on task in this rather strange mixture of styles that contained lots of independent lines weaving in and out, creating an interesting tonal fabric.
A nigun, "Ya-ba Bim Bom," served as a processional for the ensemble and kicked off the second half. Young left the podium to join the choir as BCC Assistant Conductor Liz Doebler took up the baton for a beautifully wrought performance of Eric Whitacre's Five Hebrew Love Songs, the highlight of the evening for this listener. These evocative settings (the poems were written by the composer's wife) featured Winnie Roshan as soloist, Dan Skidmore, violin, and pianist Beres. Wonderful blend, sensitive phrasing and color distinguished this performance. Skidmore's playing was exquisite, especially in the fourth poem, which conjures up cold and snow.
Two pieces influenced by Klezmer music featured BCC member Joshua Cheney on clarinet. Both "Bai Mir Bisti Sheyn" and "And the Angels Sing" featured jazzy interludes, bent clarinet notes, and romping fun. Aaron Copland's "The Promise of Living" from The Tender Land brought Anne Lewis to join Beres for the four-hand accompaniment of this moving and powerful hymn.
The evening concluded with a wild arrangement of "Hava Nagila" by Stacy Garrop (b.1969). This number included a somewhat free-form opening featuring the men singing in close, dissonant harmonies before the more animated conclusion broke out. The body slapping and sounds approximating screaming delighted the large audience. The last section of the work served as the impromptu encore.
This program will be repeated on April 28. For details, see the sidebar.