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The State Chorale of North Carolina State University temporarily abandoned their “home field,” Stewart Theatre, for the friendly confines of the handsome sanctuary of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. There, conductor Nathan Leaf led the classy ensemble of some fifty-three singers in a diversified and appealing set of offerings.
The sestina is a rather complex verse form dating from the Renaissance. The group chose a powerful a cappella work by Monteverdi (1567-1643) employing this form. In “Lagrime d’Amante al Sepolcro dell’Amata” ("Tears of the Lover at the Tomb of the Beloved"), selected readers recited each verse before it was sung, further dramatizing the lamentations. (“Now, with you gone, the earth for me is empty, / The woods deserted, and the rivers flow with tears.”) The singers did a brilliant and moving job with this piece. If you were one who previously could take Renaissance music or leave it, this performance might well have made you into a true believer.
Some four hundred years separated the Monteverdi selection from the next equally grand work, Eric Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs. (From the first song: “A picture is engraved in my heart; / Moving between light and darkness.”) Playing equal roles with the singers were regular accompanist Tom Koch and guest violinist Daniel Cunningham. The importance of piano and violin here cannot be overemphasized. These skilled players were vital in setting the requisite mood throughout the piece. Leading up to a brief intermission, the men of the chorus offered a high-grade treatment of “Ave Maria” in a 1964 setting by the German composer, Franz Biebl.
Present in the audience were two featured composers, NCSU faculty members J. Mark Scearce and Rodney Waschka II. Scearce’s “Be Anxious for Nothing” was first performed to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11 in Washington’s National Cathedral. The title refers to Philippians 4, where the evangelist counsels not to be unduly anxious, but to “let your requests be made known unto God,” whose peace will gird your heart and mind. With a rich blend of traditional and modern forms based upon a poem by John Donne, Scearce’s “An Equal Music” was composed in 2003 but received its world premiere on this evening. (The poet approaches death and possibly a strange new music experience, declaring, “As I come, I tune the instrument here at the door…”) Furnishing the texts for these works would have proved a great enhancement to the performance.
You couldn’t get any more current that the piece by Waschka. His Sayings (2010) provided comical looks at American, Irish, and Polish “sayings,” all good for laughs. Some lines were chanted individually for clarity. In the middle song, “Irish Curse: The Cat,” the hearer was subjected to “May the Cat Eat You,” a curse if there ever was one.
Closing were John Rutter arrangements of “Sourwood Mountain” and “Black Sheep.” The latter was particularly poignant as the singers intoned “Black sheep, black sheep, where d’you leave your lamb? / Way down in the valley.” Lastly, they put aside their scores (always a good sign with a choral group) and teamed up with Koch’s piano to burn down the barn with “John the Revelator.” It was a good evening, perhaps providing blessed relief for those audience members who had just lately endured the throes of their annual tax ordeal.