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Most music lovers would probably be bracing themselves at the prospect of sitting through a classical concert of 10 pieces if they were told that nine of them would be by composers born since 1939. But modern choral music isn't at all the atonal, minimalist minefield we've come to dread in the instrumental and electronic repertoire by contemporary composers. So after "Fire, Fire" by Thomas Morley (1557-1602) opened the "Elements: Earth, Water, Air & Fire" concert by the Carolina Voices' Festival Singers, the pieces that followed weren't a plunge into the abyss. Performed at St. John's Baptist Church, the concert also skirted undue formality thanks to director Donna Hill's affable introductions and her resourceful staging. Donna Clark accompanied the Singers on most of the selections from the keyboard, but Hill was also open to support from percussionist Stephanie Wilson and soprano saxophonist John Alexander. (Hill and Clark's biographies are available on the Voices website.) The acoustic at St. John's is not at all like an echo chamber, further preventing a mood of sanctified solemnity from setting in.
With the Singers deployed to the sides of the hall, flanking the audience, "Fire, Fire" was a lot to take in with its five different parts and its cascades of fa-la-la's. Frankly, I never penetrated the dense foliage of voices to the clearing where an antique rhyme – "I sit and cry me, and call for help. Alas, but none comes nigh me" – was running in continuous overlapping loops. Eventually, the framing fa-la-la's consoled me that I hadn't missed much verbally, and I simply luxuriated in the effervescence of this polyphonic madrigal. The choristers then gathered at the front of the sanctuary to sing David L. Brunner's far more decipherable "Song of the Earth Spirit." The lyrics are more of a chant than a poem, written by Stephen C. Jett, a specialist in Navajo culture from the point of view of the Earth Spirit. As you might surmise from its refrain, "It is lovely indeed," the song's harmonies are soothing. There was a whiff of inchoate chromaticism toward the end when the Singers lingered on the word "lovely," all the more satisfying when the final repetitions of the word resolved into a sunny major.
Both of the pieces on the program by Eric Whitacre were set to poems by Octavio Paz, but in "Water Night," he worked with a beautiful translation by Muriel Rukeyser, though the lyric was still occasionally difficult to decipher. A more echoey acoustic would have slurred the lyrics even more, but it would also have enhanced the sense of misty moonlit night that the composer was seeking. The other Whitacre work, "Cloudburst," was clearly the showpiece of the concert, employing handbells and percussion along with an assortment of finger snaps, handclaps, and thigh slaps. Hill brought the Singers up front, nearer to the audience, as she introduced the piece as a "celebration of unleashed kinetic energy." Although the lyrics were printed in the program with a translation, Hill had one of her choristers read them to us to sample the sound before the singing began. The performance was very much about sound from its opening words, "La lluvia," as the choir sounded like the rain they were singing about. A strangely soothing meditation preceded the grander storm, which was foreshadowed by the tingling of the bells and a whoosh of brushed cymbals. Then the full fury was let loose by a large kettledrum, a thunder sheet, fortissimo singing, and the various body sounds generated by hands, fingers, and thighs. Adding to the wonder of this spectacle was the realization that the Singers had to abandon their scores and memorize this piece before they could adequately perform it.
Stephen Paulus was the second composer on the program to celebrate fire with his "Hymn to the Eternal Flame," though its incantatory lyric more closely echoed the spirit of Brunner's earth song. I'm not absolutely sure which of the elements James Kevin Gray's "My Gift" celebrated, but since Gray is a minister at St. John's, he was present to introduce his song along with the recipient of the "Gift," his wife Alison, who was sitting by his side. The lyric is rather touching, voicing the composer's feeling that only the gold of the moonlight would be a fitting gift for his beloved – yet he can only truly give himself. After the ardor and atmosphere Gray evoked here, he might consider moving on to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."
Having just turned 38, Ola Gjeilo was the youngest composer on the program, represented in two titles. The first of these, "Tundra," has an English lyric by Charles Anthony Silvestri that was inspired by photos of Gjeilo's native Norway. While the poem is about earth and sky, it was written exclusively for women's voices, so I rarely understood the earthly and skyey words that had bounced back to Gjeilo. Heavenly sounds definitely predominated in the stratosphere of the vocal haze he composed. The words of Gjeilo's "The Ground" proved to be more intelligible as the full chorus performed them – and understandable for anyone already familiar with the liturgical Latin. The opening verses of "Osanna" praise and "Benedictus" thanks were sweet and pleasant, but the "Agnus Dei" passages were striking, as powerful when the Festival Singers sang them as any "Lamb of God" setting I've ever encountered.
The remainder of the concert was given over to choral settings of familiar African American spirituals, first an Anders Paulsson arrangement of "Deep River." Already rich in feeling, the performance was enhanced by Alexander's solos on soprano saxophone. When the ensemble came forward a second time for the concluding "Wade in de Water" arranged by Allen Koepke, they brought their scores with them – mostly looseleaf notebooks but also a couple of iPads. After the formidable "Ground" by Gjeilo, this finale was not at all anticlimactic, for it burst with celebratory energy and came adorned with finger snaps and foot stomps. The Festival Singers were alert and precise throughout their program, a worthy tune-up for their upcoming concert in Charleston. As you may know, the name of this chamber choir isn't accidental, for they have sung at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival on 27 occasions. They will reprise their "Elements" program for their 28th appearance in Charleston on May 29 at 2pm at the Bethel United Methodist Church.