Duke Performances brought the 36-voice mixed chorus, Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, to a concert attended by a full house at Duke Chapel. Although the music of Venezuela is still little-known in comparison with that of its island neighbors in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic), or even that of Colombia, next door, its musical program offering social development, El Sistema, is known world-wide, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a great success in Los Angeles.

Choral music is something that often stands apart from the rest of musical culture – neither fish nor fowl. Since singing doesn’t require the investment of purchasing an instrument, or years of training simply to participate, the borderline between what is amateur and what is professional is often blurred, as is that between musical literacy and illiteracy – those who have a fine sound are forgiven the fact that they may not be able to read. Places which have a really well-founded choral music culture are few and far between, so that North Carolina, for example, although it has a fine professional orchestra, has, to my knowledge, no professional chorus in which all the members are paid for their work. The lack of professional choruses means that occasions to hear really fine choral music, with standards similar to those for any chamber music ensemble or orchestra, are very few.

Unfortunately, the program offered by the Schola Cantorum was mixed. The first portion, titled “Water,” presented music in the serious classical tradition, the sort of music that was written for and takes advantage of the highly resonant acoustics of a space like the Duke Chapel, where a note, after it is released, continues to be present, echoing for five or six seconds. The first selection (not listed in the program) was a movement from a Requiem by Cuban composer Calixto Alvarez, which combined traditional Latin texts, sung by the male voices, with solos in Yoruba (Yoruba is the source of the African diaspora religious traditions known in various places along the Atlantic coast as santeria, candomble, etc.) by women’s voices, solo, at first, and later with the larger group, with a tone quality different from the usual choral standard – what one might call “belted” on Broadway. The performance was highly effective.

Next up there were two selections by composers from Venezuela, Jose Antonio Calcano and Gonzalo Castellanos, both evoking the sea – “Evohe,” and “Al mar anochecido.” In “Evohe” the chorus showed off the powerful sound it could produce, and fine tuning of chords in chromatic motion. This was followed by “Cloudburst,” a very effective setting of an Octavio Paz text about drought by American Eric Whitacre, with an expressive and modern idiom that takes advantage of what a chorus can do well, not drawing on any other style, but wholly Whitacre’s own. For me this was the high point of the evening. The scheduled work by Argentinean-American Osvaldo Golijov was omitted, and replaced by a folkloric work (I didn’t catch the name of the composer) representing the festival of S. Juan, that was full of rhythm and energy, but ultimately saying little. Ho-hum. This was also the occasion of the first of several moments where the Schola’s tuning was less than acceptable.

“Binnamma,” by Venezuelan Alberto Grau, was an extensive work developing brief original material based on a Catalan song, where word-setting was unimportant, and the ear was carried along by his original developments and permutation of the initial motives; well-done, and worth hearing again.

The first half closed with a movement from the oratorio Aqua, by Gonzalo Grau, with text in honor of the orisha of the ocean, Yemaya, identified in santeria with the Virgin Mary, who has the power to relieve devotees of their problems and cast these into the sea; a virtually religious moment with percussion and repetitive chants (and again, some sour notes in the solos.)

The first half was welcomed tumultuously by an enthusiastic audience waving Venezuelan flags, so much so that it seemed like at least half of those present were Venezuelans.

These partisan listeners were likely those who were best pleased by the second half of the program, since this was devoted to popular music of Latin America – a wordless tango by Piazzolla in a choral arrangement, an arrangement of two folk songs from Brazil (this particular arrangement by Pinto Fonseca is a standard of the choral literature, and unhappily did not sound Brazilian in either pronunciation nor style), mambos, cha-cha-cha, and son, from Cuba, and joropos from Venezuela. Almost all of these were highly syllabic and homophonic, and quick, so that even with the words in the program, the text as sung was completely inaudible. This is NOT music for a cathedral space, but for a dry auditorium with amplification. I could imagine that it registered within the first five rows, but the remaining several hundred listeners heard nothing but mush.

I wonder if the Schola Cantorum (the very name leads one to expect a more classical type of music) presents this type of program in Caracas, where nationalistic drumbeating is less necessary. Here in the US, for those who want national music, almost anything will serve, at least for the Venezuelans (not to single one nation out – the phenomenon of homesickness is universal); but for someone expecting a professional performance of modern choral works, the entire second half was a serious disappointment.