Well now, have 24 of your friends over for a hot session of sight singing and listen carefully to what you hear. Better yet, really listen next time to the sounds when singing in the church choir. Or perhaps you sing in a community chorus – same, same. It's no doubt a glorious and exhilarating experience, good for the soul (since the voice was God's first instrument, and all), and there's certainly wonderful social relevance. All good. But then sit down and listen to this group.
Directed by Paul Hillier, OBE, Artistic Director & Conductor, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is an a cappella ensemble of 12 women and 13 men. Right away one hears the clarity of vocal lines, purity of intervals, terraced dynamics, and all that real musician stuff that contribute to making well-directed choral singing so thrilling. All they need is one reference pitch and they're good to go.
First up were five Religious Folk Song settings, a small number of native Estonian Cyrillus Kreek's arrangements taken from a vast output of similar works. All have folk roots and spiritual messages with tonal yet distinctive harmonization. The choral shading is carefully tiered, and there is frequent use of imitation.
Next, listening to Hillier's comments from stage reminded us how American culture has influenced European composers. He cited Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecelia," Op. 27, as more American than British because it was composed at the end of his extended stay in America, the manuscript finished on his trip back to England in 1942. In three movements with text by W. H. Auden, it makes very interesting and satisfying sounds, and the rhythmic middle movement is like a canon. Britten was born on St. Cecilia's Day, 1913, and this work, written for two sopranos, one mezzo, tenor, and bass, was first performed on St. Cecilia's Day, 1942.
Before intermission, the program morphed with the Magnificat by Estonian-born Arvo Pärt. With the basses on the left, the tenors on the right, in the back row, and sopranos left, altos right, on the front row, this very complex work began to unfold against the composer's second period, "tintinnabuli" style, which dates from his "Laul armastatule" ("Song for the beloved") of 1973. Abandoning serial techniques and dramatic expressionistic works, Pärt occupied an opposite end of the plane with a more simple tonal style representing bell-like repetition of notes of the triad, thus marking a new and modern tonal pallet. Hillier worked intensely to convey the complex beat patterns. A sectional sforzando in high vocal line gave the aural impression of peak/decline cycles of an electronic synthesizer.
After intermission we were back with Arvo Pärt for his "Nunc Dimittis." The opening bars remind one of György Ligeti's 1966 "Lux Aeterna" (used in 2001, A Space Odyssey). This again featured excellent writing and brilliant execution by the chorus. The penultimate chord had density like a black hole, imploding with a crunch before resolving to a triad long tone that became a pedal while the women sang alone at the top. Indeed, it was extremely effective choral writing.
Then we heard another Britten work – "Hymn to the Virgin." Here the on-stage group was reduced to 21 while the others exited to form an antiphonal response choir off stage. Britten's very interesting harmonic phrasing is distinctive, with layers of timbre accented by the second (or echo) group off stage.
This program had a perfect ending with the Mass in G Major by Francis Poulenc. In this context, Poulenc is like a French Britten with adventurous tonal writing, long lines, and an all-business approach to the Mass form. The "Agnus Dei" opens with solo soprano; here there was superior pure tone and solid pitch formation.
The Tryon Concert Association sold out all 342 seats in the Tryon Fine Arts Center, and nearly all were taken. The enthusiastic crowd warmly rewarded this outstanding group with cheers. For an encore, Hillier chose a brief folk tune (the title wasn't given) about an oak tree upset because the three other oak trees were to be cut down. (It wasn't clear if the first oak tree was sad because it was losing friends, or because it could not join them.) This was an excellent choice in part because the warmer style of the composition helped to offset the room's trend to the dry end of the acoustic plane. It's a good room, just a little dry.
This was the first stop of a ten-date U.S. tour that will end with a performance at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Presents series. Given the high state of preparation displayed here, they should be in stellar form for that concert in that august venue. New Yorkers should not miss this outstanding chamber choir – nor should anyone else!