The East Carolina University Chamber Singers (part of the ECU choral program) gave a beautifully nuanced performance at the venerable First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington. This church is home to one of the finest concert series in town, Music at First. Held on Sundays at 5:00 p.m., there are eleven concerts on the calendar this season. The beauty of the church building – which dates from 1928 – and its resonant acoustics make this a first-rate place to hear music.

Led by their conductor Andrew Crane, the choir began with “The Music of Living” by Dan Forrest. The sound was bright and the text well-enunciated.  Cues were precise, with well-defined dynamic fluctuations. The piano accompanist – unfortunately not named in the program – played with an evocative and bright sound as well.

All of the above qualities turned out to be characteristic of this superb choir. The second work was an a capella motet, “Meditabor” by Josef Rheinberger. This was opposite in character to the previous piece, soft and meditative. The start was a beautiful and gentle swell with a fine blend of the voices. The legato lines were subtly inflected. It was noticeable that Crane tends to conduct with large gestures. But they were circular and relaxed, promoting comfortable breath control. He also communicated phrasing which was sensitively expressed by the singers.

The following “Jerusalem, gaude gaudio magno” by Jacob Handl, dated from the Renaissance. Here the antiphonal quality of the writing stood out nicely. This was one of a number of works which the choir sang from memory.

“Tempest Rhapsody” by Daniel Elder came next. The conductor mentioned in his comments that this is a newly-commissioned work by a younger American composer, and that the sounds were meant to evoke the wind and the sea. They certainly did. The very quiet initial entrance swelled to evocative peaks, with impassioned swells and retreats of the phrases. The piano was equally colorful and contributed sensitive tone. The fade at the end was beautiful. Sung entirely with vocables, this piece showcased the coordinated sound and phrasing of the choir, singing seemingly as one.

The first half ended with “Alleluia” by Jake Runestad. Sung again from memory, this energetic, rhythmic tune had welcome hints of dissonance. The reflective middle section featured a rich pedal point. It ended with a finely-built crescendo climax.

Six pieces were performed in the second half. The work by Heinrich Schütz, “Die mit Tränen säen warden mit Freuden ernten” (“Those who sow with tears will reap in joy”) stood out for the strong expression of the moods shifting between sorrow and joy. The polyphonic writing – not heard in quantity in this program – also stood out with the well-shaped rising and falling of the phrases. Here again, Crane’s phrase-oriented conducting and the fine meshing of the choir’s voices, made this a beautiful experience.

The following “The Heavens’ Flock” by Ēriks Ešenvalds featured the sopranos soaring beautifully to high B-flats. There was also the wonderful velvet sound of ultra-legato singing, ending with finely-inflected phrasing as the piece faded to a close.

One of the choir members conducted the next-to-last piece, “Tonight, Eternity Alone,” by René Clausen. It was skillfully led, and one could see the style of director Crane – a singer himself who joined the choir for this number – imprinted in the sensitivity of the student.

The concluding “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” was the most rhythmic number on the program. One might have wished for a more ecstatic reading of this upbeat spiritual, but it was precisely and effectively executed, bringing the concert to a rousing end.

This listener would have appreciated a program with at least one larger work serving as the focal point. It was also noticeable that all the recent music was quite tonal and consonant, with perhaps a bit too much similarity in both homophonic texture and conservative harmony. That said, this top-quality group sings not as students but as choral artists. That, and the pleasure they communicated in performing, led to a well-deserved enthusiastic reception from their appreciative audience.