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In their first season under conductor Nathan Leaf, the Concert Singers of Cary (comprising a chamber choir and a larger ensemble) presented a program of works by three French composers: Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). These works were conceived for the warmly-reverberant spaces of large French sanctuaries, rather than for the dead acoustics of Cary's St. Francis United Methodist Church. This attractive contemporary building is unfortunately covered with wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the sanctuary (except for the flooring under the choir's singing area). The sounds produced by chorus, organ, and/or orchestra stop dead at each cutoff. Would that the room's flooring was made of the same wood which adorns its lofty ceiling!
The Duruflé and Poulenc works are written for singers and organ. Organist Josh Dumbleton, formerly Associate Director of Music and organist at Raleigh's Edenton Street UMC, played admirably, drawing colorful and appropriately-French sounds from the church's 4-manual Allen electronic organ. Dumbleton essayed the tricky accompaniments easily with sure technique, even overcoming a malfunctioning registration action at one point. This instrument is not well-voiced for the dry acoustic, however, often sounding harsh.
Duruflé's Messe "Cum Jubilo," scored for men's voices and organ, was sung by the tenors and basses of the Chamber Choir. It is a quintessentially-Parisian Roman Catholic work, drawing its melodic lines from the great body of plainsong (Gregorian chant) which even to our own day continues to adorn the worship services of the great French cathedrals and parish churches. The chorus sings mostly in unison; the organ weaves its counter-melodies through the lines of chant and supports them with harmonies far less Gregorian, far more 20th-century. Apart from the too-open long-e vowels of the opening Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison, the sixteen men produced good tone and good diction. There were several times when Leaf allowed the organ volume to overwhelm his singers.
Next was a rare performance of Poulenc's Litanies à la vierge noire: Notre-Dame de Rocamadour scored for three-part women's or children's choir, with organ accompaniment. With its text in traditional litany form, this relatively-early (1937) Poulenc work, which he orchestrated some ten years later, is rhythmically straightforward while already colored with the richly-Poulencian harmonies which can be (to put it mildly) difficult for singers. While a few intervals in the three-part sections were less in tune than most, the performance was overall a good one. The voices of the eighteen women of the Chamber Choir blended well, with excellent tone. It was good to see and hear this beautiful work programmed.
After intermission came the always-popular Requiem by Fauré. The Symphonic Choir was joined by instrumentalists from the Mallarmé Chamber Players, their numbers fewer than usual because Fauré omitted violins (save one solo violin) from his ensemble, instead dividing his viola section in an attempt to create a sound which he found richer and warmer than the standard string-section sound. Vocal soloists (baritone David Faircloth and soprano Kathryn Mueller) completed the ensemble.
The highlight of the performance was Mueller's exquisite singing of the Pie Jesu. Her legato lines, so often missing from the choristers, were sung expressively and with an effortlessly-beautiful tone. The solo muted-violin line in the third movement "Sanctus" was perfectly played by Dana Friedli, although it was sometimes lost within the overly-loud choral parts.
Faircloth's naturally-commanding stage presence is always an asset. His two extended solos were well-sung save for a wide vibrato which intruded more than once, and one wished for the phrase "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna" ("Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death") to be sung without a breath in the middle of the line.
The rest of the Requiem was less satisfactory. This work is one of pastels, delicate shadings of volume, and long lyrical melodic lines; these were too frequently absent. Fauré's score is full of piano and pianissimo markings, but rarely was anything that soft; instead, most of the work was sung in a rarely-changing dynamic range between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte. The beginning of the final movement, "In Paradisum," is marked piano - dolce (soft, gently), but was sung mezzo-forte. When the score does call for fortissimo, in the "Dies irae" section, the singing was louder, but lacked the fire and drama necessary to realize this text.
These problems must be laid at the feet of the conductor. Like too many choral directors, Leaf does not use a baton. His two hands, palms out and frequently using his right forefinger for cues, often simply mirror each other; his conducting motions for soft passages and loud passages are essentially the same. Far too often, he seems to beat time rather than conduct in a way that produces fidelity to the composer's score in terms of dynamics. Nevertheless, he is to be congratulated on putting together this program, coupling two lesser-known French works with one from the standard choral repertory, thereby exposing his audience to fine music which they may otherwise rarely, if ever, heard.
For future concerts, program notes would be a welcome addition, as none was included for this event.