On a brisk fall evening under a full moon, the joint forces of the UNC Chamber Singers and Carolina Choir, under the outstanding direction of Susan Klebanow, gave their first concert of the school year.

The choirs performed some of the most interesting choral music this reviewer has heard in concert in a long while. Although the singers were still masked (as was the audience), their sound was full and clear. The audience, while socially distanced, was fully engaged. Friends and family listened with intent and care, and often erupted in exuberant applause.

Klebanow’s rich and well-planned program produced a thoughtful and deeply moving concert that not only included exposure to historically important works, but also featured stellar composers from the American canon. There was so much to chew on, I can only imagine the experience for the singers while learning and embodying this music. It was both educational and soul feeding.

Life is complicated, and Klebanow programmed accordingly – mirroring the past few years in a way that I am sure the student singers appreciated as well.

The recurring theme of resignation and all of its manifest forms ran throughout. Through the music, the singers emulated themes of sorrow, prayer, ascension, human love and comfort, praise, despair, recollection of the beginning and what is good, revision of our course with a new understanding of reality, and finally, gratitude. Is that enough? Klebanow and the choirs took us on a journey through the human experience with profound and excellent choral compositions – the result was brilliant.

The UNC Chamber Singers began the program with Hugo Wolf’s “Resignation” from Sechs Geistliche Lieder (Eichendorff). This text speaks of the comfort of the coming night, while the day makes one weary.

“Let me rest from joy and suffering
until the eternal dawn illuminates the still wood throughout.”

Right away, one could tell there would be nothing fluffy about this concert. The choir seemed to have no issue with the lush chordal structures and immediately created an atmosphere of rich beauty.

We moved from late Romantic to high Renaissance with Palestrina’s “Super flumina Babylonis,” which is beautifully suited for the human voice, but requires a great amount of skill from the singers. The choir’s resonant sound filled Moeser Auditorium as if in a cathedral.

“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.”

Maurice Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, Op. 10 followed. Duruflé’s polyphonic setting of the chant lines is a favorite, and the chamber choir performed it fluidly and with depth of understanding. The text was clear, and the rhythmic stresses to underscore the textual meaning were aligned throughout the ensemble.

Aaron Copland’s setting of “Lark” was performed with deep beauty. The choir sang with strong ensemble and excellent intonation. The dynamics were lovely, and diction was clear. William Woodruff’s strong and declaratory solo was fully supported by the choir. The ensemble proved their musical maturity in the very rhythmic and angular polyrhythmic ostinato. The complicated chordal structures were strong, and high sopranos nailed the hovering last chord floating on a pianissimo.

Klebanow chose two songs from the Reincarnations cycle by Samuel Barber. “Mary Hynes” was light and bouncy, quick, and clear. “The Coolin” gave the tenors and basses a chance to shine. One could not help but notice the great sense of inner pulse by the choir throughout the entire concert, but especially here. Barber’s setting is so moving. This must have been one of the most satisfying pieces for this choir to experience – it certainly was for the audience.

The concert’s first half ended with “Resignation” by Florence Price. The polar opposite sense of resignation as presented in the Wolf/Eichendorff setting, Price’s spiritual describes a painful existence. Klebanow set the tempo for the singers but then allowed them to feel their way as a collective through the melancholic and woeful work.

After a brief intermission, the Carolina Choir came onstage, this time supported by pianist Thomas Bastable. Revisiting the text of the ancient chant first heard at the beginning of the concert, Ola Gjeilo’s “Ubi caritas” and “Tota pulchra es” gave this larger choir the opportunity to sing with fullness and warmth. The sopranos gave us some really beautiful moments with a shimmering clarity of tone.

Irving Fine‘s “A Short Alleluia” was rhythmically complicated but joyously happy, and the choir did not disappoint. “To Be Sung on the Water” Op. 42, No. 2 by Samuel Barber was a sudden and challenging change of mood. Written when Barber was wrestling with the loss of his relationship with Gian Carlo Menotti, this piece again deals with the subject of resignation and acceptance of lost love. I felt that the ostinato’s rocking could have been stronger, but the sopranos carried the narrative with some really lovely phrasing.

Copland’s In the Beginning was the longest work of the evening. Based on the book of Genesis, it runs around 15 minutes and is unaccompanied. The choir did a fantastic job with the complicated rhythmic and chordal structures. Within the piece there were three featured soloists; Kennedy Miller sang beautifully with a lovely, well-balanced quality and excellent pitch. Laney Dowell’s spinning voice rang, especially when singing forte. Julia Holoman’s rich vocal quality was as clear as a bell.

I was so glad that the music of Joel Thompson (b.1988) was programmed. “America Will Be!” addresses the complex and heart-breaking subjects of immigration and acceptance with power and determination. It weaves Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” that’s engraved on the Statue of Liberty with the Langston Hughes poem “Let America be America Again.” Of his piece, Thompson has been quoted as saying that it “aims to make plain how far we are from the ideals we have set for ourselves, but it also clings to the hope that we will one day achieve them. I can’t think of anything more American than that.”

Soloists Mackenzie Smith and Isabel Swindall did a fine job with a warm straight tone that was appropriate for the work. The choir gave an impassioned performance of Thompson’s powerful music. For the final piece, the Chamber Singers reentered the hall lining both sides of the aisle, facing inward toward the audience. Klebanow announced that “we started with resignation but we are ending with gratitude.” Both choirs closed with the short but jubilant piece by Jonathan Woody (b. 1983) entitled “Gratitude.” Having not heard it, I was thrilled to hear a new way of expressing gratitude in song – “Beautiful! Incredible! Magnificent!”

Bravi tutti to both the UNC Chamber Singers and the Carolina Choir. Thank you for bringing back choral singing at its finest.