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Following Lenora Thom's retirement as Music Director of the Asheville Choral Society at the end of last season, the organization has settled on three finalists to be the next Music Director. Each of the three concerts this season will be conducted by one of these candidates. Reviewing concerts this year will inevitably consist of reflecting on these candidates, one of whom will become only the third director in the thirty-three year history of the Asheville Choral Society.
First up was Shane Long, a newcomer to the area, who prepared and directed "Heart and Hearth: Songs for the Season," presented December 10 and 11 in the sanctuary of Central United Methodist Church. I say "prepared and directed" because the work of a conductor is primarily done in rehearsal. We see the result of that preparation in the concert, but can only imagine the thought and effort that went into the final product.
On Friday, the choristers filed out of the wings while organist Vance Reese played "Fantasy on 'Antioch'" by Dr. Emma Lou Diemer, a contemporary composer who is professor emerita of the University of California Santa Barbara. The first two choral works, Mendelssohn's "Heilig" for double choir and Tallis's "If Ye Love Me" were sung a capella by antiphonal choirs positioned in a single line under the colonnades along the borders of the sanctuary, with a few choristers in balcony corners. The acoustic effect was striking. The resonance of the hall seemed to be used fully, especially in the Mendelssohn.
Dr. Reese played Paul Manz's "Chorale Improvisation on 'In dulci jubilo'" while the ninety-odd choristers moved onto their risers for the remainder of the first half. Service music by Morten Lauritsen ("O Nata Lux" and "O Magnum Mysterium") showed the chorus giving Mr. Long the sort of eye contact that most choral directors can only dream about. The result was sureness and precision coupled to beautiful a capella intonation. One could only have wished for more of this heavenly sound: the complete Lux Aterna of Lauritsen would have satisfied my craving.
The Celebration Singers are a children's chorus organized by the Asheville Choral Society. Accompanied by glockenspiel and organ (with a subtle choice of stops), the young people sang "Walking in the Air" at this point in the concert and the German carol "Still, Still, Still" in the second half. The latter work was conducted by Ginger Haselden, the Artistic Director of this children's group (and a soprano in the adult choir).
We were back to a capella singing by the adults: a contemporary work by Eric Whitacre, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" and "Bogoroditse Devo" from Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil. An arrangement of the Spiritual "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" completed the first half.
Works that were more traditional came after intermission, bathing the audience in the familiar. "Carol of the Bells" and the "Coventry Carol" were performed a capella with the chorus spread in the sanctuary. I found the choir less precise in these works, with different sections not quite in sync. "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "Lo, How a Rose" found the choir back on risers. An arrangement of a traditional Zambian song "Bonse Aba" followed. Then "Joy to the World" and the "Hallelujah Chorus" finished the program. The English language carols suffered occasionally from unpleasant vowel sounds and over-emphasized consonants. ("Evah" sounds much better than "Everrr" and "gi-i-i-v" sounds much better than "gi-v-v-v.")
What were my summary impressions of Mr. Long? It was a surprise to hear how well the choir adapted to an abundance of a capella singing. This demonstrated good preparation by the conductor. (The choir is used to singing mostly with keyboard or small orchestral accompaniment.) Placing choristers on the perimeter of the sanctuary was effective and showed creativity. Using a baton during these parts of the program was sensible, given the long sight lines. All good. On the negative side, I felt that Mr. Long's stick technique was not very sophisticated. His left hand was used very little. Whereas many choral conductors use that hand to shape sound and indicate dynamic changes, Mr. Long relied only on the size of his beat to indicate the fortissimo and pianissimo passages. I believe Mr. Long to be a fine musician, somewhat inexperienced in the details of podium conducting.