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Celebrating 80 years of evolution into one of our state's flagship choral ensembles, the NC Master Chorale concluded this remarkable anniversary season by presenting a richly varied exploration of music inspired by the four seasons. The program cycled through the seasons of the year a total of five times and incorporated works by composers ranging from Joseph Haydn to Astor Piazzolla to Barry Manilow. While the wide range of musical styles could have come across as disjointed, the tight thematic structure and predictable cycle through music inspired by spring, summer, autumn, and winter maintained focus and flow.
Maestro Alfred Sturgis has a strong reputation for flexibility and versatility, which served him in good stead as he navigated the stylistic shifts throughout the program. After opening with Haydn's "Come, Gentle Spring," the chorale launched into a delightfully jovial and rollicking rendition of the earliest recorded example of six-part polyphony, "Sumer is Icumen in." Even those in the audience who may have retained stressful recollections of this tune from "drop the needle" music history exams could not help but enjoy this piece when offered with such enthusiasm. The shift in texture from full choir to sextet was a thoughtful touch that helped keep the round from becoming monotonous, as rounds tend to do.
Other notable pieces before intermission included Morten Lauridsen's "Lament for Pasiphaë," Debussy's "Yver, vous n'este qu'un villain" from Trois Chansons, and Chen Yi's "Spring Rain." The latter featured some impressively lifelike birdsong whistles along with special vocal techniques that were handled delicately, if occasionally a bit tentatively. The entire concert was notable for clean diction, expressive phrasing, and rich dynamics. Unfortunately, balance and blend between sections was uneven as the soprano section was frequently overwhelmed, especially by the more powerful tenor section. This issue is a bit surprising, given the depth of the choir's roster for this season. Despite these challenges, the interpretation of Kevin Memley's "Autumn" was deeply memorable. Thomas Hood's text and Memley's plaintive melodies were beautifully and tenderly declaimed, especially during the magical last measures.
The last selection before intermission, "Come to the Woods," Jake Runestad's vibrant setting of the John Muir poem, appeared to be sheer delight to perform. The singers threw their hearts and souls into this piece; combined with the cinematic scope of the text and instrumental interludes, this work made for a charismatic end to the first half of the concert. "Come to the Woods" also offered pianist Suzanne Polak some lengthy solos; her playing in this piece was wonderfully sensitive, with tender, shimmering ascending scales and deeply resonant hanging chord clusters.
Maestro Sturgis conducted the second half of the concert sans baton, and Robbie Link, bass, and Russell Lacy, drums, joined in on several of the songs to fill out the rhythm section. This portion of the concert featured entirely 20th century composers—mostly living—and many popular songs. Astor Piazzolla's "Otoño Porteño" was treated to an interesting arrangement (hear the original with the composer himself on bandeon here) featuring Erica Jackson as the flirtatious soprano soloist. Other notable performances included a delightful scat quartet of Rachel Beck, Carol Ingbretsen, Andy Beck, and Ryan Downey in "Autumn Leaves," which was otherwise a bit rhythmically square, and Rollo Dilworth's "In Time of Silver Rain," a gospel tune featuring poetry by Langston Hughes. The shift in vowel placement to a more brighter and forward focus during this song was a nice stylistic touch, as well as Sturgis' far more animated and physical approach to leading both singers and rhythm section.
Kirby Shaw's stunning a cappella arrangement of Johnny Mercer's and Barry Manilow's "And When October Goes" was the highlight of the second half of the program. It can be extraordinarily difficult to arrange popular music for choral ensembles without sounding stodgy, and even more so when the song is sung by a performer with such a unique persona, reputation, and vocal style as Barry Manilow. That said, Shaw finds a way to stay true to the spirit of the original song while enriching it with the harmonic and expressive capacities of an a cappella choral ensemble. The ensemble's interpretation was lush and sensitive without ever descending into the saccharine. It was quite a gem to save for near the end of a long program, and was much appreciated by the audience.
Information about the 2023-2024 season is not yet available, but with the NC Master Chorale's history of varied programming and wide audience appeal, listeners are certain to find concerts that they will enjoy. We look forward to celebrating another 80 years with this ensemble!