With two world-class conductors at the helm, UNC Greensboro enjoys high standing among North Carolina’s collegiate choirs. Dr. Welborn Young directs the slim and supple chamber singers, and Dr. Carole Ott leads the lush and expansive University Chorale; between them, they coordinate the university’s other choirs, teach choral conducting, and share their extraordinary musicianship with the Triad’s music community in ever-growing and unexpected ways.

Indeed, Sunday afternoon’s choral concert at UNCG Auditorium embraced the unexpected with spoken-word performance, a world premiere, and the exciting and rarely-heard act of choral improvisation. 

The University Chorale, the larger of the two choirs, was first on the stage. The opening two pieces were well performed. First was “A Chant for Peace in Our Time” by Theodore Morrison, after which graduate conductor Changmuwei Wei took to the podium to lead Vivaldi’s “Et in Terra Pax” from the Gloria, R.589.

The real excitement began with the third selection. Addressing the audience, Ott explained that she had been studying improvisation as an expressive medium and as a tool for teaching. Though increasingly embraced by conservatories as a means of expanding a performer’s sense of creative agency, improvisation remains rare in performance among traditional ensembles.

Before beginning the performance, Ott introduced poet and professor of creative writing Terry L. Kennedy, whose poems (selected from his volume New River Breakdown) would provide both verbal and symbolic material for the improvisations. The choir split into six smaller ensembles, ranging in size from two singers to half a dozen or more. After each of Kennedy’s readings, Ott chose fragments of speech to read aloud and present to the ensembles as a prompt for performance.

The resulting improvisations included humming, whistling, vocal sound effects, speaking, and traditional Western singing, and ranged in style from neo-Classical to jazzy to experimental. The whole performance was immersive, reflective, delicate, honest, and incredibly courageous on the part of Ott and her students.

Occasionally improvisation is called for by contemporary composers as a component of a piece; but you’d be hard pressed to find another instance of a university choir deliberately exploring, developing, and presenting a series of original improvisations as part of a concert performance. Ott and her students deserve the utmost admiration for their creative initiative and adventurousness.

Following the improvisations, Kennedy remained on stage to read his heart-rending “The Bright Forever” which served as the text for a new piece by student composer Emily Damrel. In “The Bright Forever,” the narrator wishes farewell to a loved one; in stark contrast to the poem’s solemnity, Damrel’s composition is full of life, rhythm, and unexpected turns. Damrel treats each phrase with care and color; the choir blossomed with new textures at each line.

Damrel’s deep familiarity with Appalachian folk music is on display throughout. The piece’s melodic contours are richly pentatonic and the rhythms bouncy and forward-moving; underneath the melodies, simple intervals and fragments loop and swirl like a finger-picked guitar accompaniment. Conductor and choir were visibly enraptured by the combination of poetry and music, and the audience honored the fine composition and performance with heartfelt applause.

Young and his Chamber Singers had the unenviable task of following the Chorale’s spectacular first half, but the ensemble was prepared with both fine repertoire and consummate performing ability.

First in the program was the unassuming “Komm, Jesu, Komm” from J.S. Bach’s cantata BWV 229. Featuring Bethany Uhler on cello and Walt Lott on portatif, this elegant contrapuntal gem showed off the Chamber Singers’ transparency and precision.

Next was a kaleidoscopic showpiece, Joan Szymko’s “At Such a Dizzy Height.” Lott moved over to the piano, and Uhler was joined by violinist Leonardo Ottoni do Rosario. Tenor Jason Kraak and soprano Jennifer Brounstein stepped down from the choir and took their place beside the instrumentalists. With such a sparkling compliment of colors, “At Such a Dizzy Height” did not dissapoint. Kraak and Brounstein soared above the choir with beauty and control, while Uhler, do Rosario, and Lott wove delicate melodic tendrils between and around the voices; truly dizzying and breathtaking!

The multi-faceted program closed with two folk selections. First was Stacy Gibb’s arrangement of the traditional Bahamian lullaby “All My Trials,” a warm and tender selection which the Chamber Singers performed with all the lushness of a much larger ensemble. Finishing in style and vitality, the choir gave us Moses Hogan’s arrangement of the energetic gospel tune “I Can Tell the World,” which received a rousing ovation from the audience.

It’s more than a little encouraging to see these traditional ensembles embracing such a huge variety of styles and approaches to music-making; sincerest thanks and congratulations to Ott, Young, and the choirs of UNCG!