Voices: The Chapel Hill Chorus presented their spring concert, “Life, Love and Reflection,” in the Moeser Auditorium at Hill Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. They were accompanied by an ensemble of local musicians who served as a chamber orchestra, a string quartet, and as virtually a symphony orchestra as the scoring of the individually programed pieces required. Dr. Stephen Futrell was at the helm, securing, in his first season as Voices’ conductor, what promises to be gratifying future for the chorus and for Triangle audiences.

The guest vocalist was the active and popular lyric coloratura heard frequently in oratorio, opera and recital in the Greensboro area and beyond – Julie Celona-VanGorden. She has been on the voice faculty at Elon University for 16 years. Her rich and sparkling voice soared beautifully with choir and orchestra.

The first selection on the program was John Corigliano’s youthful, exquisite setting of Dylan Thomas’ autobiographical poem reflecting on childhood into adulthood, Fern Hill. The absence of the text in the program was covered nicely by Futrell’s program notes which called attention to Corigliano’s fascination with the sound of the words, rather than the meaning of the words.

Also drawing the composer’s interest was the structure of the poem: six stanzas of nine lines each, grouped into three pairs. The first two stanzas are scored for chorus; the third and half of the forth stanza for soloist, the other half of the fourth, fifth and sixth for chorus.

It opens with the orchestra dreamily introducing us to life. The chorus joins in with the same spirit but gradually becomes more active; a lively care-free youth passes before us. Each stanza is separated by an orchestral interlude of varying length. Following the second stanza which ends with the words, “And the Sabbath rang slowly / In the pebbles of the holy streams.” there was an especially tender and reflective interlude.

The piece concludes with the composer building a chord on a circle of fifths which resolves quietly as the piece began, but in a more complex manner. Throughout the work, the chorus demonstrated how well-prepared they were. The ensemble, the precision of attacks and cut-offs were crisp and clear. The blend of voices was good; intonation was mostly on the mark. The over-all presentation was effective and it was a pleasure to hear.

Five Hebrew Love Songs by Eric Whitacre is based on five poems by Hila Plitmann, sung in Hebrew, accompanied by string quartet and light percussion. The first one, “Temuná” (A Picture) sounded like a tender and loving embrace in music. The second, “Kala kalla” (Light Bride) is an exchange between the men, singing an appealing love song, and the women, singing a playful and jaunty “la, la, la.”

The work ends with “Rakut” (Tenderness), a lovely expression of loving sensitivity which concludes with a sweet violin solo. Voices was at home with this music, typical of Whitacre; rich, full-bodied harmonies, straightforward melodies and great audience appeal. The quartet was outstanding.

After intermission, the choir was joined by a somewhat expanded chamber orchestra for a performance of Kevin Padworski‘s Reflections on a Mexican Garden, based on poems by Grace Hazard Conklin. The English translations of the poems were printed in the program but were very hard to follow because of the unusual language in which they were sung.

Sections of the music were tender and visual, “The Garden” was set in conventional but fulfilling harmony. “In this spot of turquoise and emerald…” sung with rapturous lyricism by Celona-VanGorden was beautiful and reflective. “The Pool” with the piano playing a major role was luminous and shimmering. Celona-VanGorden was impressive in “I cry out….” “The Moon” was the most musically developed of the poems with some thoughtful counterpoint.

For the conclusion, “Let us go forth,” the composer pulled out all the stops: full brass and percussion, piano, the soprano crying out high above it all contributed to a heroic appeal to press on, to bring forth flowers, to sing our song. The vocalists seemed to be on their toes and enthusiastic throughout.

The last selection, sung in English but with no printed text in the program, was a tribute to composer Joseph Martin‘s beloved choir director who was killed at the inner-city junior high school known for its violence where she taught. “The Awakening” was a powerful testament to the teacher who inspired him to transcend the hardships and trials of life. Music is a major resource for healing and helps us survive and press on. And so, in this concert, Voices, orchestra and soloist, under the direction of Futrell, provided us with a gratifying glimpse of life, love and reflections.