There was a good turnout from the community for the annual spring concert of the Choral Society of Greensboro, given in Christ United Methodist Church. The Choral Society was organized in 1983; according to its website, it was “formed to provide an opportunity for volunteer singers to perform masterworks for chorus and orchestra.” Averaging 110 singers, the chorus is open, without audition, to anyone in the community. Past out-of-city trips have taken the chorus to perform in New York’s Carnegie Hall and to Western Europe. While featuring the Choral Society, this concert at The Music Center also introduced a new choral group formed at the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church. Both ensembles performed works by American composers using poetry by three great American poets.

The Choral Society is conducted by Jon Brotherton, and their portion of the concert was accompanied by pianist Claire Clark. Conductor Brotherton provided spoken program notes about the composers and their works. The otherwise extensive program contained full texts of most of the works.  

Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was born in New York City and attended Harvard University. Brotherton said Thompson applied to join the Harvard Glee Club and was rejected. The conductor, half jokingly, said perhaps that was why Thompson composed so many choral works! Music critic Richard Dyer once called Thompson “a composer more often performed than honored.” He was famous for what David Francis Urrows (writing in program notes for Koch CD 6644: Thompson: The Testament of Freedom & Frostiana) called “the easily rendered and easily digested choral pieces.” While Thompson’s anthem “Alleluia” is his most popular work, his wonderful setting of poems by Robert Frost, Frostiana, ought to be better known and more often heard and recorded. I have loved this work since I heard Joseph Flummerfelt lead the Westminster Choir at a Spoleto Festival USA in the early 1980s. Frostiana was commissioned in 1959 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. The composer and poet Robert Frost had known each other for years so it was natural for Thompson to select seven poems by Frost, who was closely associated with the town. CVNC reviewed the Choral Society’s dress rehearsal for their 2005 outing to Carnegie Hall.

All seven poems of Frostiana have autumnal and wistful moods. This performance featured the original 1959 setting for chorus and piano. (The Choral Society’s 2005 performance featured the 1965 version with orchestra that Thompson made after he retired from Harvard.) The first poem, “The Road Not Taken,” makes use of the full choir. The fourth poem,”The Telephone,” features call-and-response from the men and women, while the choir’s sections are used elaborately in the seventh poem, “Choose Something Like a Star.” The third poem, “Come In,” and the playful fifth poem, “A Girls Garden,” feature women’s voices alone. Male voices alone were featured in the second poem, “The Pasture.” The finest piece is the sixth poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which ends magically with its sound fading away like a trail vanishing silently under falling snow. 

The high level of diction of the Choral Society was evident throughout this concert. The choir produced full, rich sound while the singers were nevertheless agile, able to move as one during sudden changes of dynamics or tempo. Attacks and releases were precise and drawn-out words or phrases were beautifully judged and performed. The full texts in the programs were seldom needed. Claire Clark’s accompaniment was beautifully gauged with excellent balance and clear articulation, and not least, a fine piano tone. In contrast to the 2005 dress rehearsal which used piano alone, this performance assigned the birdsong-like passages to a flute. Nancy Thurston conjured up delightful chirpings and more elaborate warblings through her flute’s exact intonation and refined color.

Three excerpts from Afro-American Fragments (1991) by William Averitt (b.1948) served to introduce the Westminster Chamber Singers, a group organized in September 2011 by Jonathan Emmons, the Assistant Conductor of the Choral Society of Greensboro. This was the group’s debut in the community outside their home base. Averitt is a native of Paducah, Kentucky, and Professor of Music and Coordinator of Composition at Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. Afro-American Fragments, a setting of six poems by Langston Hughes, was the winning work of the 1992 Roger Wagner Center for Choral Studies Choral Composition Competition. The selections were “Song for Billie Holliday,” “Feet o’Jesus,” and “Fire!” The first selection featured the full group singing “What can purge my heart,” which served as a repeated refrain for the other two stanzas. “Feet o’Jesus,” very like a gospel song, was sung a cappella. The fast-paced, jazzy, and very rhythmic “Fire!” was an immediate hit with lines such as “I been stinkin’, low-down mean” and “Had more women /Than Pharaoh had wives,” along with the “heated” repeated refrain in “Fire.” The piano accompaniment of Matt Webb was superb, as was the even, smooth soprano of Meghan Dunham Johnson, whose voice frequently soared above the voices of the choir.

No texts were available for the four selections from sets 1 and 2 of Old American Songs by Aaron Copland (1900-90), but the Choral Society of Greensboro’s clear diction made them unnecessary. The original versions for solo voice have been frequently performed throughout the state and are well known. “Zion’s Walls” has a fine militant rhythm while “Long Time Ago” features a flowing, measured melody. Sopranos and tenors led off the lovely spiritual quality of “At the River” while the full choir was surprisingly and wholly successful in the tricky nonsense passages of “Ching-A-Ring Chaw!” Conductor Brotherton has maintained the high standards of his predecessors and has continued polishing this underappreciated gem of the community. He has shown great imagination in the selection of little-known but very worthwhile repertoire.

The Choral Society will be featured in the Greensboro Symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony May 3 and 5. The group would welcome additional singers.