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If you're in search of musical adventure and discovery, yet hesitant to stray too far from your comfort zone, a choral concert will likely be a safer, more rewarding choice than a foray into rock, opera, symphony, or jazz. This is especially true, as demonstrated by the most recent Music @ St. Alban's concert featuring the Charlotte Master Chorale, when you're in search of modern music written by 20th century or contemporary composers. Although many of the texts that we heard on Sunday afternoon – by Maya Angelou, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ogden Nash, Sara Teasdale, Violet Nicolson, and William Shakespeare – were familiar, I'd never before heard any of the music selected by artistic director Kenney Potter for this "Poets" program. All except one or two of the eight composers were also new to me.
They remained mysterious to us, since Potter and members of the CMC appropriately concentrated on the poets in their spoken introductions rather than on musical analysis. Instrumental accompaniment was ably provided by assistant conductor Philip Biedenbender, seated behind a sweet-sounding piano – but not immediately, since the four settings by Matthew Harris were all performed a capella. Biedenbender merely cued the opening chords for the chorale, traveling to Davidson with over 20 voices, before they sang "It Was a Lover and His Lass," "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind," "And Will He Not Come Again," and "O Mistress Mine." The jauntiness of "It Was a Lover" was just right, but the sprightliness of "Blow, Blow" missed the gravity and the bitterness of the lyric. "Will He Not Come," the lament sung by Ophelia late in Act 4 of Hamlet, had ample weepiness, but the Harris setting for "O Mistress Mine" was even more satisfying and complex, with an undercurrent of sadness.
We got to hear three of the Five Songs of Lawrence Hope (Nicolson's pen name) by Harry T. Burleigh – the only composer in this concert who wasn't still alive – in arrangements by Marques L. A. Garrett. After looking at YouTube videos and Spotify cuts of a single vocalist version, I can say with certainty that it was Garrett's work that allowed Biedenbender to spring so boldly into action in Nicolson's "Worth While," flowing with a mix of gospel and rhapsodic Gershwin flavorings. "Among the Fuchsias" was more bluesy, morose, and intoxicating. It seemed that Potter was building to a climax – as he had in the Shakespeare selections – when we arrived at "Till I Wake," the last of Burleigh's settings in his sequence. Biedenbender was absolutely rhapsodic in much of this arrangement, particularly during one cessation of the singing where he soloed. Yet the chorale matched his fervor and, with a sudden pause midway through the piece – where the piano also fell silent – sharpened the drama.
Interestingly, the Teasdale settings were by three different composers. The contrast was sharpest between the incantatory acapella "Grace Before Sleep" by Susan LaBarr, its arpeggios rising and falling with a soft entrancing charm as the piece resolved, and the turbulent Christopher H. Harris setting of "I Am Loved," where the keyboard accompaniment soared and punctuated the chaste ecstasy of the lyrics. Elaine Hagenberg's setting for "The Music of Stillness" threatened to dial us back down to even more quiescence than "Grace" when it began, the choristers singing a lazy ethereal melody over the piano's spare treble, but a nicely managed swell in the middle of the piece added shape and muscle before the concluding diminuendo.
Eric Whitacre had made a huge splash in Charlotte back in 2018 when his Deep Field was paired with Gustav Holst's The Planets in an elaborate multimedia concert with Charlotte Symphony. That colorful dive into the cosmos was certainly more audacious than the three choral bagatelles he wrote for Nash's Animal Crackers, Volume 1 – less than three minutes for the whole suite. Yet each of them had a life and personality of its own. Nor could I tell whether Biedenbender or the chorale was having more fun with Nash's wicked animal portraits. "The Panther" had Biedenbender pounding raucous feline pounces for at least eight measures before switching to the stealth I had expected. "The Cow," with its predictable mooing, was the funniest of the three, with an epic length of more than a minute, followed by the most ephemeral creature in the suite, "The Firefly," with some flighty helter-skelter filigree at the keyboard.
The concert crested nicely after these charming trifles with poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou. Jake Runestad's setting for Dunbar's "Why the Caged Bird Sings" (originally titled "Sympathy") began soothing and sad, making me wonder if the music would rise to the poet's anger and scorn or simply wallow in defeat. But as the setting moved from the dreary "how the caged bird feels" opening stanza toward the anguished "beats his wing" middle, there was a very slow and subtle crescendo before a crackling break-in of syncopation – a much better pulsating evocation of the bird's desperately beating wings from the Charlotte Master Chorale than you'll hear on Runestad's own recording. The change to the iconic "why the caged bird sings" stanza was no less dramatic, as the ensemble reverted to resignation. Yet a single soprano voice floated upwards in keening vocalese, salvaging beauty amid the devastation.
After this a capella tour de force, we could all long for a return of Biedenbender's zesty virtuosity in the concert finale. Tom Trenney's "Maya's Prayer for Peace" is based on a poem more simply titled "Prayer" by Angelou in 2005. The supplicating tone of Trenny's own recorded versions, for accompanied solo voice and for choir, was blithely discarded in the opening section. Potter quickened his singers' tempo and hit the repeated "Father, mother, God" syncopations harder, and the treble choristers skated enticingly on the blue notes while Biedenbender dug into the 3/4 tempo, lifting the song into the righteous realm of a gospel waltz. The middle section was moodier, still in a faintly discernable waltz rhythm, before the song turned back to its opening melody, slowed to the point where the tune and rhythm could barely be recognized. Trenney's strategy here was effective, as the litany of sweeping supplications subsided into a simple prayer for peace.