Hinshaw Music’s annual Celebration Concert, always an inspiring evening of superb sacred music performed by excellent choirs, sustained its reputation before an enthusiastic wall-to-wall congregation in Edenton Street United Methodist Church’s capacious sanctuary. This concert featured the beautiful singing of the Bel Canto Company, based in the Triad and known for 26 years as one of the best professional choral ensembles in the Southeast. Its conductor, Dr. Wellborn Young, has a well-deserved reputation as an able conductor and choral clinician presently teaching graduate conducting and seminars in choral repertoire at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For this concert he shared the podium with two other excellent conductors: Mark Hayes and the internationally-known English composer and conductor John Rutter.
This concert moved along briskly from beginning to end and never allowed the audience’s enthusiasm to falter. After a sparkling organ performance of Gjiello’s Sinfonietta by Adam Ward, who also ably served the choir as a fine accompanist, Wellborn conducted a majestic Mark Hayes arrangement of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” which allowed the choir and the congregation to join forces. Next came Howard Helvey’s motet of great beauty, “Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes,” with its tenderness and air of contemplation sustained by superb harmony and choral intensity, and Dan Forrest’s stirring, triumphant arrangement of “How Firm a Foundation.”
The second group of choral pieces, arranged and conducted by Mark Hayes, appealed deeply to the minds and spirits of everyone present. The first of these, “To Love Our God,” with a profound text emphasizing the truth that to love God is the most important part of human life, is brought to life by rich harmony, vocal power, and excellent writing for the piano which accompanist Adam Ward realized with exciting technical skill. Two numbers in this group were arrangements of well-known spirituals which revealed Hayes’ great gift: to make old songs of inspiration seem as if they had never been heard before. The first of these, “Go Down Moses,” is a tremendously effective narrative of the old story recounting the exploits of Moses, with a jazz piano accompaniment which rocked every corner of the great Edenton sanctuary. The choral lines were rich with jazz rhythms and exciting harmony, and Hayes’ setting of the text called for the best, most crisp diction of which the choir was capable. The beloved “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” also seemed new, with a swinging jazz accompaniment, a rocking choral bass line, a masterful use of staggered breathing technique in one verse, and a final verse in which Hayes’ writing calls for all voices to soar from earth to heaven.
After the intermission came yet another beautiful approach to the creation and performance of sacred music as John Rutter enchanted his listeners with pieces revealing his sweet, contemplative harmony and elegant lines in all choral parts. These characteristics were made clear in his “I Wish You Christmas,” in which simple words and pristine music combine to create a rare degree of beauty.
But for me the most profoundly moving music in the concert came at the end, with Rutter’s exquisite conducting of Gabriel Faure’s beloved Requiem. Accompanied to perfection by a select group of instrumentalists, the Bel Canto Company revealed its great choral skills in the performance of this work in as many ways as one can count. All voices were pure and clear, almost childlike; the enunciation of the Latin text could not have been improved upon; the vocal intonation was perfect; and all the singers and their conductor performed as one in achieving the thrilling dynamic shifts which the composer called for. Margaret Carpenter, soprano, and Ken Lee, baritone, sang their solo lines with impeccable skill.
There were several especially lovely sections in the performance of Faure’s Requiem — for example, the “Offertory,” with its impassioned lines imploring God to grant deliverance from death to those who have left this world; Carpenter’s pure, transcendent “Pie Jesu;” the bell-like vocalism of tenors and sopranos in the “Sanctus;” and the power and passion of the “Libera Me.” For a number of other persons I spoke with, however, the most effective section of the Requiem was the concluding “In Paradisum,” with the pristine, soul-stirring lines of the sopranos and the final phrases calling upon choirs of angels to sing our loved ones to their rest, to raise them from life’s end to eternal life. There is no more profound beauty in all the great Requiems ever written than in the last bars of Faure’s work, and the Bel Canto Company and conductor John Rutter captured all of it.
Edited/corrected on 08/18/2009