Anyone coming to the program by the Canterbury Cathedral Choir of men and boys who expected a nice set of ethereal, angelic anthems had their ears opened big time. Of course, the choir presented wonderful readings of Byrd and Tallis (as well as Parry, Stanford, Elgar and Britten), but even from among the well known English composers frequently came a muscularity of sound that might have surprised audience members perhaps anticipating a program more along the lines of "If Ye Love Me" or "Ave Verum Corpus."
Before a packed St. Paul's Episcopal Church for the Fisk on Fourth Concert Series concert, the 30-voice ensemble, in its only North Carolina stop while on a coast-to-coast American tour, demonstrated abundant skill in a full range of choral music from the 16th century on to more contemporary times, some sung a cappella and some accompanied by organ. The quality of performances, so ably led by David Flood, ranged from merely excellent to quite outstanding.
To be sure, the choir did present ethereal, angelic sounds on several pieces, including the opening "Ave Maria" by Robert Parsons, for instance, and Peter Phillips' "Ecce vicit leo." But even in the initial group of selections, some of the more forceful attributes of the music and the singing unfolded – on William Byrd's "Vigilate," for example, in which the boys sang their treble lines over a layer of older male voices.
Other pieces came close to shaking the rafters. Charles V. Stanford's "For lo! I raise up" was given a full-bodied yet deeply moving reading, with strong organ accompaniment by Adrian Bawtree. Also in this category were Adrian Peacock's "Venite Gaudete" and Giles Swayne's Ghanaian-infused "Magnificat."
The program contained several softer moments, including some from unexpected sources. One such highlight was the choir's presentation of Norwegian composer Ola Gjiello's "O magnum mysterium," accompanied by organ and tenor Samuel Corkin's gorgeous solo saxophone. The music opens with words sung in separate single syllables and dense chords, gradually ascending and building in intensity. Another contemporary piece, "Stay with Me, Lord" by Will Todd, might remind some of the choral music of Eric Whitacre, with its shimmering melody lines and nice harmonies.
Two pieces were sung antiphonally, with a quartet separated from the group and standing far away. Both pieces, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Agnus Dei" and Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to the Virgin," were beautifully rendered, with the four distant voices providing nice counterpoint to the fuller sound of the larger group. Boy trebles Joseph Henry on the Vaughan Williams and Mark Lower on the Britten sang with great skill and were not overshadowed by the older male voices.
The evening contained several highlights, some already noted, but two especially beautiful selections were Edward Elgar's "Lux Aeterna," sung by all, and a much-condensed version of Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," sung by older male voices. A fine quartet opened the piece, and the really lovely voice of tenor Samuel Bartlette soared. The closing piece, "I Was Glad" by Charles Parry, was, fittingly, grandly grand, a wonderful ending to a wonderful evening.
In the accompanied pieces, organist Bawtree didn't hold back, and he also played two good solos, Langlais' "Fete" and Vierne's familiar "Carillon de Westminster." The church's Fisk organ resonated to great effect. However, the church's acoustics also contributed to one drawback on otherwise splendid performances – the words to the anthems were swallowed up and rose into a dense ball of sound on more than one occasion. This affected the singing of choristers of all ages, from 9 upward. One could always appreciate the glorious sound of the music, even if the words were not always distinctly heard.
Steve Row, a former Greenville resident and reviewer for CVNC 2007-16, was a member of the St. Paul's Episcopal Church choir that sang in a week's residency at Canterbury Cathedral in 2008. He now lives in Richmond, Va.