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The East Carolina University Chamber Singers gave themselves a rousing send-off for an international choral competition in Slovenia in early April, and they showed just how good they are, whether singing in Latin, German, English or Slovene. The ensemble, which finished second (by a fraction of a point) in an international choral competition in Tolosa, Spain, in November 2013, will be the only American choir taking part in the 13th International Maribor Choral Competition Gallus in Slovenia.
Under the direction of Dr. Andrew Crane, these young singers continue to dazzle with their seamless vocal blend, spot-on timing and all-around mastery of so many different aspects of the choral repertoire. These skills drew an enthusiastic response from a nearly full house at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Crane programmed the pre-competition concert as if it were the competition, with three pieces from the compulsory program, four from a “free” program of music of his choosing, and two from the Grand Prix program, which would be performed if the Chamber Singers are among the three finalists in the competition.
The selections mixed old with new compositions, as well as lushly Romantic with more contemporary choral sounds. Part of the compulsory portion included songs in Slovene; the balance of compositions were mainly in other foreign languages. All pieces were sung a cappella, and nearly all were sung without scores.
As in previous Chamber Singers ensembles, the 36 voices taking part in the competition in Slovenia show a remarkable maturity for a group made up of basically 20-somethings. They simply don’t sound like college-age singers. The sopranos, in particular, have a heavenly sound, without being too shrill; at the other end of the choral spectrum, the basses can form a substantial foundation without losing musicality. And the inner voices – the altos and tenors – do just about everything they are supposed to do.
The two songs in Slovene – “Jerusalem, gaude gaudio mango” by Renaissance composer Jacobus Handl-Gallus and “Dajte Dajte” by contemporary composer Ambrož Čopi – were more uptempo. The Handl-Gallus piece has a tricky syncopated rhythm, while the Čopi piece features a lively introduction to the main musical phrases. In between was a gorgeous “Meditabor” by German Romantic composer Josef Rheinberger. This piece was aided considerably by the excellent tenor and alto voices.
Jake Runestad, whose works Crane has programmed before, was represented by a spirited “Allelulia,” which included rhythmic clapping and featured a well-executed sustained chord from the basses and tenors. Also part of the middle set were “Die mit Tranen saen” by Heinrich Schütz, with its staggered entrances, and a most lovely “Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine” by contemporary Polish composer Paweł Łukaszewski. Petr Eben’s “Cantico delle creature,” based on a text by St. Francis of Assisi, included some unusual chord progressions in the slow opening and particularly strong soprano leads. This piece enabled the singers to show their skills in negotiating tricky shifting rhythms and tempi.
A program highlight was “The Heaven’s Flock” by Ēriks Ešenvalds, a contemporary Latvian composer. Four first sopranos soared over wordless harmonies in other parts, and the subtle suspensions were breathtaking. Another contemporary Latvian piece, “Kalējs kala debesīs” by Selga Mence, which included rhythmic foot stomps at several points and a rapid almost whispered supporting line by the tenors, provided a lively ending to the pre-competition program. For good measure, the singers closed the concert with Moses Hogan’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” and they showed they can deliver the rhythmic and musical goods on a lively spiritual as well as they sing Renaissance and Baroque compositions.
As this reviewer wrote in October 2013, before the Chamber Singers went to the Tolosa competition in Spain, Crane wants such experiences to be more about sharing a love for choral music with singers from other cultures and countries, and not just about winning, although the ECU singers proved their excellence by finishing runners-up. As part of that earlier review, I said it would be hard to imagine another choral ensemble in the competition being much better than the Chamber Singers. Based on this pre-competition performance in Greenville, such an evaluation still holds.