The stately sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham was the site of the first visit to this fair city of the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir in this reviewer’s memory.  The church was, sadly, only about half full.  It should have been packed.  But alas, this is the state of things in this modern culture with its plethora of entertainment options.  NCMC-CC conductor Alfred E. Sturgis must have pulled out all the stops on his Google search engine in the planning of this program called “Obbligato.” The sixteen pieces the choir sang were accompanied by a solo instrument, i.e. oboe (Kelly Longmire), French horn (Matthew Martell) or cello (Jonathan Kramer). Susan McClaskey Lohr, NCMC’s outstanding pianist, accompanied several pieces, and Alec Sturgis joined the ensemble in one piece playing the conga drum.  It all added up to a delightful afternoon of unique and marvelous sounds from this first-rate group of twenty singers.

The concert opened with a set of four pieces by Cecil Effinger (1914/90), the only composer represented in the program who is not alive.  Effinger was a fascinating figure in American music history.  He met Igor Stravinsky on his visits to Colorado Springs, his hometown. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, and became a life long friend of Roy Harris. He was also an inventor, and by all reports was a patient, impartial and generous human being. Four Pastorales is a setting of four poems by Thomas Hornsby Ferril for four-part chorus and oboe. The oboe, in the acoustically live sanctuary almost overpowered the choir at first, but a better balance was achieved as the piece progressed.  The poetry, mystical and image-rich, was well served by the choir with the oboe weaving in and out and commenting on the text.  The choir was masterful in the realization of Effinger’s lush harmonies and well-formed melodies.

Next we heard Libby Larsen’s playful Sweet and Sour Nursery Rhymes, a setting of three rhymes familiar to most of us: “There Was a Little Girl” (you know, the one with a little curl “and when she was bad, she was horrid”), “Little Boy Blue,” and “Try, Try Again.”  The French horn was the obligatory instrument in this piece and opened the first rhyme with a slightly twisted reference to Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” (ref: Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, 1940).  The piece was a joy.  “Little Boy Blue” was a little bit wistful, and “Try, Try Again” had a hint of sarcasm.  Larsen has a real sense of depth in these traditional rhymes. Hornist Martell certainly got it and the choir communicated precisely what was meant to be heard.

Next came Imant Raminsh’s gorgeous and ethereal “In The Night We Sha1l Go In,” with text from Pablo Neruda’s La Rama Robada (The Stolen Branch, trans. Donald D. Walsh). Kramer reached deep into the soul of the cello with this one, and Lohr wove the magical piano accompaniment around the beautiful singing of the choir.  Unforgettable!

Stephen Chatman’s “Piping Down the Valleys Wild” brought the oboe to life again, and “Life Has Loveliness To Sell” by James Mulholland used the piano and the horn to conclude the first half of the concert. (Obbligato, by the way, is an Italian musical term meaning “Obligatory, usually with reference to an instrument or part that must not be omitted; the opposite is ad libitum.”)

The music of John Tavener has become synonymous with otherworldly, transcendent, sacred commentary in an otherwise bewildering and frantic 21st century world.  His music almost always seems disarmingly simple, through it is not, and almost always has a calming and uplifting quality. “Svyati” is part of the funeral service in the Orthodox practice where the casket is borne slowly from the chancel out of the sanctuary. The words are sung by the choir in Church Slavonic, “Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us.” Kramer’s virtuoso performance at the cello ably voiced the presence of Christ in the service.  The choir sang intensely, and basses deserve special accolades for holding their low pedal point while the traffic outside droned Doppler effect tones all around it. Despite that, it was a tremendous, moving experience.

With “Set Me As A Seal” by Richard Nance, text from the Song of Solomon, the horn and piano added a worshipful quality to this great song of the strength of love. “Angels and Stranger” by Mark Gresham, with text by Martin Lehfeldt, was the homily of the afternoon. The choir, accompanied by the cello and piano, reminded us that when we are alert we find angels among the strangers in need, “our hearts are warmed.”  When we practice simple justice, then we become angels.”  With David N. Childs setting of James Thomson’s poem “Where Dwells the Soul of My Love” (with oboe and piano) we were provided a true benediction.

The concluding selection, the postlude if you will, was Paul Basler’s “Alleluia” (from Songs of Faith).  Performed with horn, piano and conga drum, it had a decided African influence with rhythms that made me want to move, to dance, to celebrate.  I celebrate the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir, its stellar conductor, excellent accompanist and each of the obbligato instrumentalists who made this afternoon such a delight.

Note: This program was also performed on October 14 at Kenan Recital Hall, Peace College, Raleigh, NC.