It wasn’t difficult to divine the rationale behind the titling of Davidson College Music Department‘s most recent program of choral pieces. In different ways, “Atlantic Crossings” summed up Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande and John Corigliano’s Fern Hill rather well. British composer Lambert used the poetry of Sachaverell Sitwell to create his first huge success in 1929. Transporting us to a make-believe Rio Grande that may have its shoreline along the Texas border but is nevertheless wrapped in “soft Brazilian air,” Sitwell gleefully has it both ways. The poet’s introductory lines tell us, musically speaking, what the Rio Grande is not: “They dance no sarabande… Nor sing they forlorn madrigals.” Europe and the Americas are thus neatly packaged together as the composer evokes those rejected descriptions. Excerpted from Corigliano’s Dylan Thomas Trilogy, written in 1960 and revised in 1999, the Atlantic crossing of “Fern Hill” is entirely spiritual, the American composer’s homage to the Welsh colossus. 

A teacher at Davidson College for nearly 20 years, mezzo-soprano Diane Thornton joined the Davidson College Concert Choir as the lone vocal soloist for the Lambert and the Corigliano, which formed the first half of the “Crossings” program. Newly appointed director of choral activities Christopher Gilliam conducted the vocalists and the instrumental accompaniment at Duke Family Performance Hall, where I saw the venue’s acoustic shell in action for the first time. The sonic results overcame my wariness of musical performance at the Duke, a wariness built up over years of witnessing actor’s voices disappear into the enormous shaft over the stage – a boon for flying scenery but not nearly as welcome for theatergoers in the balcony straining to hear.

Besides the sarabande and madrigal, Lambert was attuned to other Sitwell musical cues in creating his own sonic mishmash of European and American ingredients, giving us “the marimba’s note,” a trumpet, and timpani mentioned in the poem, spurning the use of bells or a plectrum, but tossing in a tambourine, and for true concerto effect, two pianos. Segments of the score, following the twisted verbal terrain, ranged from ragtime-flavored and jazzy to full rhapsodic outpourings from the chorus when “the river and its waterfall” – grandly – rolled into the sea, and in solo interludes from the lead piano, bombastically delivered by Michael Rowland. Diction from the chorus was admirably maintained under Gilliam’s spirited direction, but they drowned out most of what we were intended to hear from Thornton, who was curiously placed upstage between the conductor and the chorus instead of downstage near us. She was also partially hidden from view by Cynthia Lawing at the second keyboard, which sometimes accompanied Rowland’s thunder but also occasionally came infectiously to the forefront in the ragtime and jazz passages.

“Fern Hill” is simply one of the supreme poetical creations of the 20th century, so the promise of hearing any musical setting of the work was enough, all by itself, to draw me to this concert. Could Corigliano’s piece possibly compete with the famous recording of Dylan Thomas’s own reading of the poem? The two were so radically different that my worries instantly disappeared. The Concert Choir and Thornton, now downstage where a solo vocalist should be, were both in top form as the piece unfolded, and by the third stanza, after an orchestral interlude where Thornton made her entrance, I was holding back sobs. By the time she concluded, five lines into the fourth stanza, I had given in. Yet afterwards, it was the choir that unraveled, particularly in the sixth and final stanza, unintelligible through the last heartbreaking tercet. Corigliano’s music continued to capture the essence of Thomas’s ecstatic anguish, an essence akin to Peter Pan in its celebration of the joys of childhood and the poignancy of its brevity. If the remainder of A Dylan Thomas Trilogy is anywhere near as good as this sampling, it’s a crime that the piece is rarely performed in full.

Soprano Jacquelyn Culpepper became the dominant vocalist for the remainder of the evening, which was comprised of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Serenade to Music, set to the blank verse of William Shakespeare, and excerpts from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, with text by Erik Johns. Although tie-ins to the “Atlantic Crossings” were impossible to discern, both selections were richly rewarding. Taken from the opening of Act V in The Merchant of Venice, where Lorenzo calls upon Portia’s musicians to serenade his beloved Jessica just before the mistress returns home, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade calls for more substantial instrumentation than Fern Hill, bringing forth a quartet of Charlotte Symphony wind players to augment the strings and harp that had replaced the trumpeter who had departed after our Rio Grande excursion. With tenor David Moffitt and bass Dan Boye, Culpepper was one of three vocalists who joined Thornton onstage, and describing how Vaughan Williams excerpts the Shakespearean text and distributes it to his soloists and the chorus would only serve to insinuate that he was writing a comedy – or purposely sowing confusion. The actual piece is as soothing and lyrical as its opening pentameter, “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!” Moffitt and Boye acquitted themselves beautifully when their turns came, and Thornton’s contributions were also effective, marking Portia’s arrival. But Culpepper, tagging along at the end of the choral refrain created by the composer, upstaged everyone by scaling to the top of her range for the final two or three words of “Soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.” Just those couple of words made the impression indelible.

Culpepper was far more extensively showcased in “Laurie’s Song,” the first of the two gracefully fused segments from The Tender Land. The concert setting was obviously the ideal way for the soprano to portray Copland’s protagonist, since Culpepper’s singing career is slightly older than the teen who is singing on the eve of her high school graduation. That dramatic liability hardly mattered as Culpepper inhabited the eagerness and guilelessness of the lyric, turning the invisible fence Johns’ words has Laurie standing near from a measuring stick she once thought she’d never exceed in height to a boundary beyond which she is now impatient to leap. It was harder for Culpepper credibly to recapture the young girl’s bewilderment, her inability to grasp what strange feelings were stirring within her, so that was where Copland’s music helped her most. An orchestral interlude allowed Culpepper to melt back into the Concert Choir for the finale, “The Promise of Living.” But her presence didn’t vanish entirely as the chorus rounded into the final lines of this rousing anthem. Sopranos assumed dominance in the final ascent of the concluding crescendo, “The promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving,” and Culpepper’s voice was clearly discernible in the ensemble’s final high note.