Dr. William Adams and his Riverdeep male chorus presented a skillfully-crafted program which ranged stylistically from classical to barbershop. Although entitled “Contemporary Music for Male Choir,” several of the works have been in the standard repertory for decades, including the two which opened the concert: Randall Thompson’s “Tarantella” (1937) and Benjamin Britten’s “The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” (1943).

The singers, numbering thirteen except when Adams moved out of the singers’ lineup to conduct, have a beautifully-blended ensemble sound. While sometimes overpowered by some unduly-percussive piano accompaniment by Dr. Anatoly Larkin, the chorus gave fine accounts of the Thompson and Britten works. It is notable that Britten composed the “Ballad…” for the chorus in a German prison camp.

While the chorus sings with superb diction, it is nevertheless difficult to understand long stretches of complex poetry, whether the early English “Ballad…” or the poetry of Hilaire Belloc (“Tarantella”) or Edwin Brock (“Five Ways to Kill a Man”) simply from hearing it sung. For these works, the audience would have benefitted greatly from having the texts as well as the translations of the non-English works on the program.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt‘s De Profundis, a setting of Psalm 130, was sung in Latin with the organ part played convincingly by Larkin on a synthesizer. Assisted by percussionist Kevin Holland, the chorus captured the atmospheric quality which imbues Pärt’s music. Riverdeep had no problems with the difficult vocal requirements of Bob Chilcott‘s setting of Brock’s poem. In its harmonic texture, this work is reminiscent of the sound of The King’s Singers, the iconic British men’s group with which Chilcott sang tenor for twelve years.

The program’s second set opened with Francis Poulenc’s Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise (“Four small prayers of St. Francis of Assisi”), one of only four works which Poulenc composed in 1948. In the first two movements, the chorus wandered a bit through the tonal forest which characterizes much of Poulenc’s choral music. Singing this music in a carpeted room, standing in a single line on a stage with a sound-absorbing curtain behind them makes the tuning of each chord more difficult for the singers. In the third movement, “Seigneur, je vous en prie” (“Lord, I pray you”), however, the dense harmonies fell into place and began the successful conclusion of the work.

Two beautiful performances ended the concert’s first half: Timothy Takach‘s setting of Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” and the first performance of director Adams’ setting of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Tread Softly.” (Note: two additional complex texts which the audience would have appreciated having.) The chorus brought rhythmic excitement in Takach’s work, and then gave a memorable premiere performance of Adams’ work. Its harmonic language evokes both Pärt and American composer Morten Lauridsen, its texture enlarged by the velvety-rich soprano voice of Patty Philipps. This new music deserves many more equally-fine performances.

After intermission, Riverdeep continued their linguistic prowess with works in Hindi, Russian, and Portuguese (having essayed only English, Latin, and French in the concert’s opening half). Ethan Sperry‘s arrangement of an Indian raga brought passages of rapid texts and non-texts, as the singers produced unusual vocal sounds perhaps intended to conjure up the sounds of the sitar and tabla with which sung ragas are traditionally accompanied. The low bass tones so common to Russian sacred vocal music adorned the moving performance of Nikolai Golovanov’s “Milost’ Mira,” the eucharistic prayer of The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the chief liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. From the serious mood of Golovanov’s music, the chorus switched gears (as well as formation, as the order of singers changed frequently according to the voicing requirements of a given work) to the sparkling, up-tempo setting of “Siriri,” a traditional Brazilian folk song.

Announcing the final set on the evening’s program, Adams pointed out that “the serious part is over; now we get to the fun stuff.” Five lighter works followed as the chorus showed its versatility with elements of jazz (“Sophisticated Lady”) and barbershop (“An American Hymn”). My favorite was the deliciously-sweet “Lullabye” by Billy Joel, in an arrangement by Philip Lawson.

This is a talented group of fine individual singers who blend their voices and adapt them to the many styles of music which they sing. The program was rich in content, full of challenging music which is not heard often enough. It will be repeated in Durham on Sunday, October 20 at 4:00 p.m. For details, see the sidebar or click here.

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