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Conductor Lawrence Speakman designed a truly-imaginative program, titled "Time and Space," for the Concert Singers of Cary Symphonic Choir's opening concert of their 2014-15 season. While the closing work, Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy," is well-known (and indeed was performed earlier this month in Raleigh by the N.C. Master Chorale with orchestra and pianist Susan Lohr), the program's other three works were significant but lesser-known pieces by Gustav Holst [1874-1934], Ralph Vaughan Williams [1872-1958], and William Grant Still [1895-1978].
The chorus, numbering some 115 singers, was on risers with chairs, which left little room on the modest stage of the Cary Arts Center for their accompanying partners, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. The stage, which also had to accommodate a piano, was so full that chorus members had to step carefully when entering and exiting, in order to avoid tripping over stage furniture, and Speakman had to weave his way through the orchestra for his own entrances. If the arts continue to expand in Cary, we will hope that performing spaces may also expand!
Featuring the choir's strength (the women outnumber the men by almost 100%), the program opened with the third of Holst's sets of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op. 26. Accompanied by the assertive playing of harpist Laura Byrne, the 47 sopranos and 29 altos blended well and produced some beautifully-light sounds. Their diction was not always clear, but the texts fortunately were present in the program. Curiously, that program identified the composer as "Gustav von Holst:" Holst legally dropped the "von" from his name in 1918 to avoid being mistaken as German while Great Britain was at war with Germany.
Holst's music was followed by that of his good friend Vaughan Williams, whose 1906 setting of poet Walt Whitman's "Toward the Unknown Region," from Leaves of Grass, first drew public attention to Vaughan Williams as a rising young composer of significance. Here, the female-male imbalance in the chorus was obvious, as the basses were frequently less audible than the other sections. This is Romantic-era music, full of subtle changes in volume and tempo and many markings of crescendo and diminuendo, often on as few as two or three notes; many of these subtleties were missing. It was, nevertheless, an exuberant performance, solidly undergirded by the orchestra's collective musicianship.
After intermission came the surprise of the evening: the first performance in some 50 years of Still's dream-born miniature cantata, From a Lost Continent. According to the composer's daughter Judith Anne, who remains in charge of his publishing catalogue, her father awoke from a dream about Atlantis and felt inspired thereby to compose some Atlantean music. Judith Still told Speakman that since her father did not know what language might have been spoken on that lost continent, he made up his own; hence, translation was neither needed nor possible for a modern program-booklet. Perhaps this is one reason why this 1945 work has not been performed since 1955. The music is in four movements: "Song of Worship," "Song for Dancers," "Song of Yearning," and "Song of Magic." As a black American, Still was never accorded the honors due him as an eminent composer; while he wrote in many genres, he was most active in composing film music, where there were fewer avenues for racial prejudices to deter his genius. His imagination of things Atlantean produced wonderfully-evocative sonorities, beginning with the opening muted strings and quiet choral chants of worship. Singing from their positions in the chorus, soprano Megan Brachtl and tenor Aaron Carlyle made positive vocal contributions to the mystic character of the work. There are measures which sound as if they might have been written by Aaron Copland, and other passages which suggest sounds of night-life of the Harlem Renaissance, but the work is by no means a hodge-podge of styles; it is Still's own style, full of his own "yearning" and the "magic" of a world which his dreaming mind opened. Congratulations to conductor Speakman and the Concert Singers for making this Atlantis rise once more.
The concert closed with Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 80 (1808), the Fantasia in C Minor, known as the "Choral Fantasy." It is more a vehicle for a solo pianist than a choral work; many musicologists believe that it was a "trial run" for Beethoven when he began thinking about incorporating a large chorus into a symphonic orchestral work. The chorus, including solo voices, sings only at the end of the work, but, as in the more famous Ninth Symphony, brings the work to a vigorous conclusion. After a somewhat rocky start, pianist Allen Bailey met the work's demands, matching the orchestra in dialogue and acquitting himself well through the cascades of Beethoven's quintessential scale-and-arpeggio passages.
The CSC's season continues with holiday pops concerts on Dec. 13 and 14. For details, see our calendar.