The Bel Canto Company opened its 37th season with all selections written by Dan Forrest (American, b. 1978). Forrest is a renowned composer, especially of choral music, and his works have been performed world-wide, from church choirs, to amateur and professional ensembles. BCC commissioned a new choral work from the composer several years ago, and Saturday night’s performance featured that work: a moving four-movement composition written especially for BCC and orchestra entitled the breath of life. Performing before a full-house, artistic director Welborn E. Young caringly lead the 40+ ensemble and 20 instrumentalists. The composition sets four deeply profound texts from a variety of sources. The opening Bible verses from Genesis “et Deus inspiravit” (and God breathed) begins with low grumblings from the orchestra. Through slow swells and accretion, layers of sound accumulate until the chorus enters. In this movement and those that follow, Forrest overlaps the text setting so that the words are often indistinguishable in gently rising and falling lines. A dramatic silence takes place, with the piano (sensitively play by BCC accompanist Christy Wisuthseriwong) starting the motion again, which moves to the climatic end.

The second movement “first breath last breath” (2006) sets the poem about the beginning and ending of life by Antler, the former poet laureate of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eerie sounds begin this section: harmonics on the strings combined with unearthly electronic effects. An instrumental interlude separates the two halves of the poem. It is in this movement that the exquisite tuning of the BCC was heard, bringing the tight harmonies to the fore and making them all the more poignant.

“the silent kiss” (1928) by William Butler Yeats is set over what sounded like a recurring bass line. Again, the slow motion of the music accelerated, which ended in the dramatic climactic conclusion.

epilogue: “time is,” a 1904 poem by Henry Van Dyke, starts with the sound of bells, a perfect evocation of the passing of time. Lots of repeated motives throughout the piece lend form to the music and aid in the impressive crescendos and diminuendos that characterize the entire work. Throughout, the ensemble was spot-on with intonation and close attention to Young’s careful execution of the score. Several seconds of silence followed before the crowd leapt to its feet in appreciation.

This concert could have been called a “colossal collection of choristers,” since the Western Guilford High School Chamber Ensemble (Jordan Lee, director), the Southwest Guilford Honors Vocal Ensemble, (Catherine Butler, director), the R.J. Reynolds A Cappella choir (Joshua Settlemyre, director), and the Greensboro Youth Chorus (Rebecca Suco, director) joined in the singing. To top things off, Forrest was present for the proceedings and had worked with the attendant ensembles.

The evening opening with “Good Night, Dear Heart” (poem by Robert Richardson and Mark Twain) sung by the Western Guilford group. This gentle and plaintive a cappella mildly dissonant number was impressively sung by the young ensemble. The fiery and enthusiastically sung “Ban, Ban, Caliban” (from The Tempest by Shakespeare) by Southwest Guilford women featured an athletic piano accompaniment, spiritedly played by Rebecca Oden and percussion by three male members of the ensemble. “A Prayer Before Singing” (by John Donne) was a prayerful, gentle a cappella number expertly performed by the Reynolds High ensemble.

The second half was given over to the upbeat 2016 Jubilate Deo featuring all five ensembles and orchestra, all superbly held together by Young, who often focused on the ensembles in either balcony or the upfront ensemble spilling off the altar. The seven-movement work sets verses from Psalm 100 in as many languages. The musical influences are appropriately varied, from Middle Eastern modes to African drumming, and from gentle lullabies to boisterous syncopated dances. Seven soloists contributed to the beautiful singing: Amber Davies Engel, Brittany Griffin, Jaime Lyn English, Yophi Bost, Clarice Weiseman, Catherin Clifton, and Lynelle Rowley.

The entire concert was a “celebration of the life and indomitable spirit of . . . Suzanne Goddard . . . one of Bel Canto’s biggest fans . . . We honor her with a concert of music by one of her favorite composers, Dan Forrest.” The performance was recorded live, adding even more excitement to the long evening overview of Forrest’s impressive output.

This performance repeats again on Monday, October 14 at the same venue ‒ First Presbyterian Church, in Greensboro. See the sidebar for details.