Eternal Light: East Carolina University Chamber Singers, Daniel Bara, conductor; Christopher Ulffers, bassoon; Christopher Grymes, clarinet; Christine Gustafson, flute. Gothic Records G-49272, 2010; 77:59; $15.98.
The second recording by the East Carolina University Chamber Singers shows that this ensemble is no one-hit wonder. Following up on the wonderful 2007 compact disc Greater Love, the singers, under the direction of Dr. Daniel Bara, present a program of both accompanied and unaccompanied music that showcases a remarkable blend of young voices exhibiting both considerable musical quality and extensive expert training. In this recording, one actually notices youthfulness in the singers, but it is a youthfulness that contributes to a stunning blend of voices without a hint of thinness or immaturity.
This CD has some unusual elements: the accompanied pieces are generally quite contemporary and written for chorus and solo instrument. Among them are the world premiere recording of “Agnus Dei” for chorus and bassoon by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, a lushly composed musical setting for the four main sections of that portion of the Mass — “Agnus Dei,” “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” “Miserere nobis” and “Dona nobis pacem.” While the work won’t gain any awards for innovative lyrics (each section is a seemingly endless repetition of the Latin text), it has a musical quality that is often soothing, at times even astonishing.
The recording also has a selection by Anthony Maglione, who earned his master’s degree at ECU and has been working on a doctorate at UCLA. “O Thou Great Power in Whom I Move,” written for choir and clarinet, is a wonderful piece. Some of these pieces were part of a Chamber Singers concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in February 2009; the recording was made at St. Paul’s, which provides a fine acoustical setting for the singers.
The recording opens with an ethereal sounding John Rutter composition, “Hymn to the Creator of Light,” written for double choir, with both traditional harmonies and some tight suspensions in the first section that recall some of Arvo Pärt’s work. The middle section is more traditional, opening with brighter sound and quicker rhythm, and the slower closing section has some lovely soaring soprano lines, a reference to a Johann Cruger melody line from the 17th century, and a great bass line in the final chord. Maglione’s composition starts with a brief solo clarinet run by Christopher Grymes and unison choral line but quickly moves into a multi-part full chorus that also features intense suspensions and more traditional harmonic scoring. The contrasting men’s and women’s lines are beautifully sung, especially a passage with words sung by the men and accompanied by a wordless legato line from the women.
Three shorter pieces by Mark G. Sirett, Cary Boyce, and Abbie Betinis provide a wonderful showcase for the skills and talents of the singers — clarity and precision, pitch and intonation, and a wide range of dynamics. All four main vocal parts are strong, with sopranos showing particular strength in the uppermost registers. The lively “Cedit, Hyems (Be Gone, Winter!),” by Betinis, with a particularly nimble and bright flute accompaniment by Christine Gustafson, moves effortlessly as a duet between voices and instrument. Boyce’s “Ave Maria” includes a sudden key change that almost catches the listener by surprise, and a layered vocal line that makes one wonder if perhaps each of the 40+ voices is singing its own part.
Hovland’s “Agnus Dei,” the centerpiece of the recording, is a workout for both singers and Christopher Ulffers on bassoon but a treat for listeners. Some of the exposed bassoon lines are stunning, and Ulffers also provides fine accompaniment for the singers. Among the highlights of the 30-minute composition is the male singers’ rich a cappella harmony at the end of the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” section. But what listeners might take special note of are the occasional sustained choral lines — often sustained for many beats — that the singers negotiate without losing either melody or energy. The “Miserere nobis” section is an example, especially at the end. The singers likely found random places to breathe, but it is not apparent to the listener. This section also gives Ulffers perhaps his most prominent solo, and he performs quite well. The harmony between choir and bassoon in the final (and brief) “Dona nobis pacem” section is beautiful in its simplicity.
Two spirituals are part of the recording, and although they are gorgeous settings, they are not nearly as memorable as the contemporary works. “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long,” with Katie Avery as mezzo-soprano soloist, and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” are well sung, with rich vocal harmonies, but they somehow seem out of place, with a tempo that might be a bit too slow, especially the latter. The recording ends with Leo Sowerby’s “Eternal Light,” a simple and simply beautiful shorter piece.
This recording is Dr. Daniel Bara’s final big project at ECU, as he took a position as director of choral activities at the University of Georgia in late summer. He has been succeeded on a one-year interim basis by Alfred Sturgis, director of the North Carolina Master Chorale. The hundreds of students Bara has trained, the many superb Chamber Singers’ concerts he has conducted, and these two recordings, represent quite an achievement and set a high standard for his successor to seek.
(“Eternal Light” is the first recording on the Gothic label to be distributed by Naxos, one of the leading classical music labels in the world.)