The North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir presented “Celebration Française” in Jones Chapel, at Meredith College, on May 15. Alfred E. Sturgis conducted. Apropos of the theme, in opening remarks, Sturgis reminisced about touring two summers with Robert Shaw, in the South of France. He also marveled that, while in Tampa Bay, he regularly hosted a Thursday night radio show that used Fauré’s “Pavanne” as its theme song, noting that, on this particular Thursday night (May 15), he had programmed that work to conclude the first half of the concert. This proved to be a stroke of genius that left the audience wanting more. The concert was a representation of fine French choral music selected from many periods whose composers dated from 1485 to 1992, not to mention three living American arrangers of French melodies: Alice Parker, Mack Wilberg, and Michel Legrand.

Maestro Sturgis opened the program brilliantly with “Le Chant des Oyseaux,” by Clement Janequin (1485-1558). Birdcalls vocally reproduced in bouncing staccato were more imaginative than the obvious “cuckoo” that appeared as part of the work. The new audience – many hands had been raised to indicate first-time attendance at this series – was captured, for keeps.

There followed excerpts from the motet “In Convertendo,” by Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764); this was by far the gem of the evening. Tenor David Wiehle realized what the program notes said the tenor recitative would provide: “a somber mood… to depict the Jews’ captivity in Babylon” before “Rameau brightens the mood with the entry of a five-part fugal chorus on the text “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with joy.” However, this tenor role was not a good vehicle for Wiehle, who is usually outstanding, or he was not in good voice. He was not listed in the program. M. Angelyn Bethel was the unidentified soprano whose solo line gorgeously ornamented the work of the classically conceived chorus “Laudate nomen….” Two themes converged dynamically in the final chorus, “Euntes ibant et flebant”; one represented weeping and the other, exaltation.

Susan Lohr supported the motet from the pipe organ. Throughout the evening, she complemented the choral music with superior accompaniment technique when piano was indicated, as well. Her sensitive interpretations marked her as an outstanding accompanist.

“Ubi Caritas,” by Maurice Duruflé (1902-86), “O Sacrum Convivium,” by Olivier Messaien (1908-92), and the “Cantique de Jean Racine,” by Fauré (1845-1924), preceded the aforementioned “Pavanne.” The Duruflé contained lovely controlled a cappella contrasts, the Messaien was a gem, and the Fauré was the composer’s prize-winning work as a student, gently melodious, with lovely a cappella harmony.

The second part of the program was intentionally lighter but continued to be dynamically interesting, thanks to distinctive chamber choir blend. Three songs (“Trois Chansons”) by Debussy (1862-1918) provided contrasts in themselves. The first was a virtual love song for the composer’s country. The second, “Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin,” introduced to us an outstanding contralto chorale member, unidentified*, whose solo voice distinguished the work that it embellished. The third chanson, which describes the wrath of winter, was introduced by pelting vocal hailstones! It was very effective.

Then followed “Valse avec Choeur” by George Bizet (1838-75). This incorporated a simplistic verse that Sturgis presented in English, no less inconsequential than many an opera libretto, but nonetheless musically delightful. Lighter in tone than a Strauss waltz yet with dynamic contrasts that made it powerful, this work could be added to the annual New Year’s Eve waltz fare of the NC Symphony.

Next were three arrangements of French tunes by American composers, each being food for future programs as they bear repeating. They were “Aupres de ma blonde,” arr. Alice Parker (b.1925), “The Shepherdess,” arr. Mack Wilberg (b.1955), and the last, “Alouette,” arr. Norman Luboff (1917-87), which was enhanced by a strenuous and imaginative atonal piano accompaniment.

“Little Boy Lost (Pieces of Dreams)” by the popular Frenchman, Michel Legrand (b.1932), provided a distinctive finale.

*Soloists not identified in the program itself were listed in the supplemental “texts and translations” materials. For the record, the soloist in “Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin” was Jennifer Seiger, and, as noted above, M. Angelyn Bethel sang in the Rameau motet excepts, replacing Erin O’Hara.