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The East Carolina University Chamber Singers just keep rolling along. Despite annual changes in personnel, this award-winning ensemble of approximately 40 voices rarely offers anything less than excellent choral musicianship, built on precise diction, spot-on timing and lovely shifts in dynamics – the hallmarks of outstanding vocal ensemble skills. And more and more people on a wider stage are learning just how good they are.
The only American ensemble in the international Tolosa, Spain, choral competition in November 2013, the singers earned a second place medal with a performance that impressed not only the judges but also at least one other European competition representative. As a result the ECU Chamber Singers will be the only American ensemble to participate in the 13th International Maribor Choral Competition in Slovenia next April.
The singers, under the direction of Andrew Crane, gave a preview of part of their Slovenian competition program before a large audience at Peace Presbyterian Church in Winterville in late October, and all the attributes of their usual choral excellence were present.
The tone was set – literally and figuratively – with the opening music: Jake Runestad's setting for Psalm 121, "I Will Lift Mine Eyes," with a gorgeous melody line and several vocal suspensions that caused chills. Performing a cappella without score, the singers brought all parts together seamlessly in a shimmering blend.
The singers presented several pieces in foreign languages other than Latin, including a lively Slovenian folk tune by Ambroz Copi, which translated begins "Give her, give her as a gift." Two pieces in German from Brahms' Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103, (his Gypsy Songs) were part of the program, as was "Turot eszik a cigany" by Hungarian Zoltán Kodály. The first Brahms piece, "Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn," is a lovely love song that opens with a strong tenor line, which is then repeated by tenors and sopranos. The second, "Brauner Buscher führt zum Tanze," is a livelier folk-dance-like song. Although both are relatively brief, they were quite enjoyable. Eric Stellrecht provided fine piano accompaniment. The Kodály piece, also a Gypsy song, began with lightning-like speed and then shifted mood to a slower pace before returning to the faster tempo and strong ending.
Crane also programmed two new works: "Beati Omnes" by Ivo Antognini and "Tempest Rhapsody" by Daniel Elder of Asheville. The group has performed at least one other Antognini composition in the past, "O Magnum Mysterium," and this piece is every bit as beautiful, with a flowing opening and a soaring soprano line. The Chamber Singers have performed other Elder compositions, too, but perhaps not one like this. "Tempest Rhapsody" was the most interesting piece in the program, a wordless sound-picture of a storm at sea, with some voice parts humming while others sang open vowels, and with momentary hisses thrown in here and there. The singers provided a fine reading that captured both high drama and more placid moods. Antognini's composition received its first public performance; the singers performed Elder's piece for the first time at a recent statewide choral directors' conference.
The program also included a beautiful reading of "Tonight, Eternity Alone" by René Clausen, directed by Erin Plisco, a first-year master's degree student in choral conducting at ECU. Plisco, former choral director at Pinecrest High School, was a recipient of a Gates Foundation scholarship last year to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, in England. The Clausen composition builds on unison phrases against harmonies, with suspensions similar to the Runestad piece that opened the program. This selection was aided tremendously by two exquisite soprano voices, Jerenae Raeford and Kim Watson, and a strong foundation provided by the basses.
Closing the program was Hall Johnson's arrangement of "Ain't Got Time to Die," a rousing spiritual that featured tenor soloist DeMarcus Kelly and bass soloist Trey Scarborough. Each had separate solo lines, but it was their duet at the end, with their perfectly matched voices, that brought the audience to its feet. The choral accompaniment to their singing was excellent; the solos were excellent-plus.
Note: The Chamber Singers and ECU School of Music are engaged in an effort to complete the ensemble's fundraising for the Slovenia competition. The University is providing approximately half of the estimated $60,000 cost. Information on the fundraising can be obtained from Mary Jane Gaddis at 252/328-1268 or firstname.lastname@example.org.