For their final local performances of the 2008-09 school year, the East Carolina University Chamber Singers took their considerable skills on the road, singing in Fayetteville and Chesapeake, VA, before concluding at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Greenville in front of a large and appreciative audience. The demands of a repertoire of nearly two dozen selections, many of them quite challenging, combined with two days of travel, could create the potential for problems in timing, diction, pitch, tone and myriad other details essential to a successful live choral performance, but the training and talent that these 40-plus undergraduate and graduate students possess far outweigh such minor problems as bus rides and late hours.

During a program of more than 90 minutes, the singers performed 18 songs and proved once again that the ECU choral music program is one of the true gems of not just the eastern part of the state, but of the entire region. In addition, a smaller ensemble, the ECU Choral Scholars, performed five selections under two student directors. In sum, the audience enjoyed an evening of top-notch music all around.

The Chamber Singers’ program, sung a cappella under the direction of Dr. Daniel Bara, represented a sort of “greatest hits” of the year, with several selections drawn from earlier concerts, including the recent NewMusic@ ECU Festival (John Rutter’s “Hymn to the Creator of Light,” Leo Sowerby’s “Eternal Light” and Cary Boyce’s “Ave Maria,” for example). But many in the audience found new and unexpected pleasures in the program.

One such highlight was the Brahms motet “Schaffe in mir Gott ein rein Hertz,” with its beautiful harmonies and moving fugue passage led by the tenors. Others were early 20th century composer Ildebrando Pizzetti’s “De profundis,” with its surging and flowing lines, and contemporary American composer Stephen Paulus’ “The Old Church,” with its lovely moving passages in the inner voices. Mezzo-soprano Katy Avery was the soloist in the emotionally-charged arrangement by Jeffrey Ames of “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long.” For some, however, a real gem was “Veni Sancte Spiritus” by contemporary Canadian composer Mark G. Sirett, a gorgeous piece in which the sopranos and altos sang the Latin text in counterpoint with the English translation sung by tenors and basses.

The Choral Scholars’ portion of the program consisted of Bruckner’s “Os Justi meditabitur” and Barber’s “Anthony O’Daly,’ directed by Ryan Keeling, and Brahms’ “In stiller Nacht,” Thiman’s “Go, Lovely Rose” and “Depart,” written by ECU tenor Timothy Messina, based on a text by Rimbaud. The latter three pieces were conducted by Harris Ipock. Both conductors had firm control over the singers and material.

The Scholars, consisting of 19 students and Bara, showed a more intimate side of choral singing. The Bruckner motet featured strong soprano voices, beautiful suspensions and a striking unison “alleluia” at the end. Barber’s song, from Reincarnations, was lovely to listen to, except that the lyrics were swallowed up and almost completely lost in the hard acoustics in the church. And yet the Brahms piece, sung in German (as was the earlier motet), showed that the singers can apply crisp diction to the hard syllables of a language as difficult as German, along with well-timed entrances and cutoffs, without sacrificing content to acoustical obstacles. Messina’s composition, which received its first public performance, was quite lovely, by the way.
The third part of the program focused on secular music, highlighted by two works by contemporary composer Eric William Barnum, “The Lady in the Water” and “Requiescat.” The former was performed in late March as part of the annual High School Singers Symposium and received an even more splendid reading this time around. The latter, set to words by Oscar Wilde, is surely one of the saddest songs ever penned, and Barnum’s music conveyed a sense of profound sorrow, which the singers captured nicely without being overwrought.

The singers also performed three part songs by Charles V. Stanford, highlighted by the soaring and swooping vocal lines in “The Swallow,” and ended with contemporary composer Paul Sjolund’s “Love Lost,” a cycle of four satirical poems on love, composed as musical miniatures (one of the poems, “One Perfect Rose,” is by Dorothy Parker) that are close to laugh-out-loud funny. The encore, Uzee Brown Jr.’s setting for “Rock-a My Soul,” provided a rousing finish.

One senses that these young singers derive real pleasure, perhaps even soul-satisfying enrichment, from their performances under Bara’s direction, despite whatever long hours of hard work are required. Certainly, their knowledge of and experience with serious choral music grow exponentially during their time on the Greenville campus. And from the audience’s perspective, their performances bring unbridled pleasure and enrichment.