The Piedmont Chamber Singers opened its 35th Anniversary Season in the spacious Ardmore Baptist Church with a concert devoted to works in the Spanish language composed by both Old World and New World composers. Interestingly, of the six composers represented, only two could claim to be native Spanish speakers, but all used texts which have their roots in Hispanic poetry. Spanish poet and dramaturge Federico Garcia Lorca was most heavily represented with about two thirds of the songs of the evening being set to his poems.

The first work on the program, Los conflades de la Estleya, was also the oldest – all the others being from the XXth century. It is a setting of an anonymous description of the voyage of the Magi, seen from the point of view of peasant children and composed by the Spanish-born Peruvian composer, Juan de Araujo (1646-1712). The work includes an organ background (Norris Norbert) and some spontaneous percussion effects (Daniel Diaz) which made this Negrito a charming and somewhat exotic opening to the concert.

I would have liked to have heard some more early Spanish/Latin American secular and sacred songs, but we moved directly into the 20th century with the fascinating a capella setting of four Lorca poems by the Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) in his 1973 Suite de Lorca. The first song, “Canción de jinete” (Song of the Horseman) features the female voices singing the text of the song over the rising and falling ostinato of the men repeating again and again, “Córdoba, Córdoba…”  The second song starts with a shocking female glissando, perfectly imitating “The Scream” (El Grito) which is the title of the song. As Lorca writes, “Like the bow of a viola, the scream has drawn out the vibrations of the wind.” My favorite of this astonishing four-song suite, “The Moon Rises” (La luna asoma), is chillingly quiet until soprano soloist, Rachel Phillips, admonishes “no one eats oranges under the full moon.” The fourth song, “Malagueña,” describes Death as “coming and going from the tavern,” another ostinato led by the male voices while the female voices sang the remainder of the poem. This seven-minute work was the highlight of the evening!

Starting with the rich clear tenor of Jeremy Trehul and followed by the full chorus singing like a samba orchestra, we were treated to the work of Venezuelan composer, Antonio Estévez (1916-1988), Mata del anima sola (Tree of the Lonely Soul), a charming rhythmic work often heard with a large chorus, but no less effective when sung by the two dozen voices of the Piedmont Chamber singers.

The Soneto de la noche (Sonnet of the Night) by American composer Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) is a recent work (2005) using the romantic poetry of celebrated Chilean romanticist, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). The work is lush and legato and had a profoundly satisfying ending.

Sensemayá is the title of a colorful pagan poem by Afro-Cuban poet, Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989), about the ritual to be followed when killing a snake, very effectively set to music by Canadian composer, Sid Robinovich (b. 1942). An obsessive piano accompaniment provides a rhythmic underpinning to this splendid piece which repeats evocative pagan words, “Yombé, Yombé, Mayombé…”  Recalling the orchestral work bearing the same title by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, this was an effective closer for the first half of the concert!

The entire second half of the concert was devoted to the Italo-American composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), a composer who has specialized in writing for the guitar. His 1951 Romancero gitano (Gypsy Songs), Op. 152 sets seven poems from Poema del cante jondo by Federico Garcia Lorca for mixed chorus and guitar, here ably played by Mark Charles Smith, a faculty member of Guilford College (Greensboro, NC). The style of Castelnuovo-Tedesco is Eurocentric and he only ventured into the Moorish-influenced Andalucian style in the sixth song, “Baile” (Dance) and the final “Crótalo” (Rattle). The fourth song, “Procession” is actually a set of three songs depicting a religious procession of the Virgin and “Dark-skinned Christ” in a very mysterious and solemn trilogy. The Chamber Singers were at their best in this group.

Clear diction, excellent intonation, pleasing solos and a warm enthusiastic tone are the characteristics of the Piedmont Chamber Singers. They are led with distinguished musical intelligence by Wendy Looker. They have a loyal following and sang to a large house.

And yet – I left wishing that there were a more direct musical contact with the audience. They felt “over there” and we felt “over here.” Perhaps a different acoustical setting would help – Crawford Hall (University of NC School of the Arts) is perhaps the livest hall in town, Brendle Hall (Wake Forest University) is next. I would like to hear them in some halls designed with small ensembles in mind!