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Choral Music Review

Concert Singers of Cary Offer Baroque Treasures

March 31, 2007 - Cary, NC:

The Concert Singers of Cary, under the direction of Lawrence Speakman and accompanied by an orchestra playing instruments authentic to the era, presented a concert featuring works by three of the giants of the Baroque: Henry Purcell (1659-95), George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Some of the string instruments dated from the early to mid 18th century. Others were recreated from Baroque models: wooden flute, oboe and oboe d'amore, trumpets without valves, etc. Gut strings and shorter bows provided a softer and more delicately articulated sound that blended warmly with the woodwinds. The ambience of St. Paul's Episcopal Church lent its authenticity to these great sacred works.

The concert opened with Purcell's "Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo," one of his St. Cecelia anthems, composed in 1694 at the behest of London's "Gentlemen amateurs of music." It is a richly orchestrated piece with trumpets magnificently sounding the praise of God. It calls for a number of incidental solos providing diversity to the longish text of the "Te Deum." Unfortunately, the 16 different soloists of the CSC Chamber Choir were not equally up to the challenges of Purcell's complex ornamentations, turns and melismas. Even the trumpets had a hard time with the difficult high parts requiring very tight and unyielding embouchure. The tempo sagged because some singers could not keep up with the beat or the pitch, and there were spots where the whole thing threatened to fall apart completely. Nevertheless, it did have some rewarding moments, mainly where the full chamber chorus was engaged.

Next the full Symphonic Chorus, some 175 voices strong, sang Handel's Chandos Anthem No. 4, "O sing unto the Lord," one of eleven anthems he composed while in the service of James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos, for performance in his private chapel. In his introductory remarks, Speakman informed the audience that the soprano who had originally prepared for this presentation had experienced her first North Carolina pollen season and her vocal chords were fouled up. Justine Limpic, one of the members of the choir, prepared the opening soprano solo and the later duet with the tenor in a scant 48 hours. She and tenor Jonathan Blalock did outstanding work, and the choir and orchestra just about nailed it perfectly. The choir was impressive with their articulation and their rich choral blend, even with their undermanned tenor and bass sections.

The final selection was J. S. Bach's Easter Oratorio, S.249, first performed as a cantata in 1725 and revised as a short oratorio 1732-35. The Symphonic Choir and the baroque orchestra were joined by soprano Megan Bender, mezzo-soprano P.J. Zhu, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and bass Matthew Farnsworth. The oratorio opens with a Sinfonia and Adagio, setting the stage for the joyous opening chorus, "Come, hasten... for the grotto... for He who saves us is raised up." The trumpets sounded out with triumphant joy..., and the chorus matched their vigor with glorious singing.

A recitativo between Mary, daughter of James (soprano), Mary Magdalene (mezzo-soprano), and Peter (tenor), leads to one of those exquisite arias for soprano with flute obligato and basso continuo that Bach weaves so hauntingly into the emotional and spiritual fabric of his compositions. Another recitativo section leads to the solo tenor singing with strings and a marvelous flute and recorder duet. A brief recitative is followed by the alto solo accompanied by strings and oboe d'amore. This is music that must await us just inside the heavenly portal. A bass recitative leads to the final triumphant and joyous chorus with trumpets, full orchestra and a sound like all the saints and apostles and angels singing together.

Though there were some flaws, they were redeemed in the overall experience of this concert. The soloists, especially in the Handel and Bach, did a very creditable job. The baroque period instruments made it special, and the Symphonic Choir was outstanding.

Edited/corrected 4/5/07.