The Choral Society of Greensboro proved that an epic oratorio is not needed to highlight quality choral singing or to mark the departure of their conductor, Welborn Young. The ensemble’s “love of singing” was Young’s strongest impression when he auditioned for the post, and it was evident everywhere in the hour-long performance of two German Romantic rarities in Christ United Methodist Church. Only English texts were given in the otherwise excellent program notes that packed a lot of musical depth into a limited space. The chorus’s performances are a valuable free gift to Greensboro’s cultural scene.
Brahms took his text for “Schicksalslied” ("Song of Destiny"), Op. 54, from a sprawling two-volume letter-novel, Hyperions Schicksalslied (1797-99) by Friedrich Hölderin (1770-1843). The very short three stanza poem uses the literary device of thesis and antithesis. The rather pastoral first two verses, limning the unknowable bliss of the gods, are set against the darkly dramatic depiction of mankind’s failing. This work was composed in 1868 around the time the composer’s German Requiem was published. In The Compleat Brahms, Leon Botstein describes the glowing orchestral introduction to "Song of Destiny" as “ethereal and dreamlike.” It shares much of the quality of the “All flesh is as grass” from the German Requiem.
Mendelssohn’s “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht” ("The First Walpurgis Night") is a bona fide unjustly neglected masterpiece that has only recently begun to receive exposure by choral societies. The English nun Saint Walpurga established religious houses throughout Germany, and the night of April 30, Walpurgis Night, is dedicated to St. Walpurga. According to folklore, on this night druids and witches would meet in the highest peaks of Germany’s Hartz Mountains and conduct their revels. Instead of the well-known witches' Sabbath scene in Goethe’s Faust, Mendelssohn chose a ballad, written in 1799 by Goethe, that depicts the druids and witches using their revelries as a defense against Christian zealotry. The score calls for four soloists, mixed choir, and orchestra.
The absence of German texts is regrettable since the balance, diction, and focused projection of the Choral Society was so excellent. Each vocal section sang as one, allowing the German words to register fully. This was no mean achievement on the part of Welborn Young and his singers since the acoustics of the church are problematic at best. Young controlled dynamics, phrasing, and tempos beautifully in both works. The Brahms had the appropriate burnished and plush tone while the Mendelssohn had that composer’s characteristic clarity of textures. His excellent soloists in the Mendelssohn were mezzo-soprano Levone Tobin-Scott, tenor Robert Bracey, baritone Robert Wells and bass-baritone James Wilson.
Young got very refined playing from a small ad hoc orchestra. Brass versus string balances were near ideal in both pieces. The inner string voices, the cellos, violas and woodwinds were very good in the Brahms. Pick-up orchestras' brass sections seldom play with the refinement of this group. A lovely moment was the tight ensemble between two horns and a bassoon in the Mendelssohn, which also featured a fine brief cello solo.
This was a fine celebration of Welborn Young’s inspiring leadership. His successor, Bruce Kiesling, Resident Conductor of the Greensboro Symphony, has an impressive résumé.
Perhaps the Choral Society could explore the links between the great older choral works that Brahms explored with his Hamburg Frauenchor in 1859 and some of his own neglected choral settings. Then there is his Rinaldo , which gives a taste of what a Brahms opera might have been like.