Choral Music Review Print



Woman's Favorites

February 1, 2004 - Chapel Hill, NC:


The Triangle's all female chorus, Women's Voices, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. During its decade-long history director Mary Lycan has meticulously honed this group - now numbering 49 singers - into an exceptionally well-disciplined ensemble with a blended sound that any choral director could envy. For its anniversary celebration, Women's Voices selected a program of favorites entitled "My Spirit Rejoices," featuring music from the eleventh century to the present, including one premiere commissioned by the group.

The program, which lasted nearly two hours, illustrated all too clearly the great strength and weakness of this ensemble: However polished their performance, there is still a dearth of first-rate music for women's chorus. The selections on the program were certainly pleasant but nothing to write home about. The featured works were a transcription for all-female voices and soloists of Vivaldi's Magnificat and Welcome Love , a cycle of four songs on texts by 16th and 17th century British poets by contemporary composer Lana Walter.

The Vivaldi included guest soloists, sopranos Molly Quinn and Sharon Szymanski and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Cobb, all three of whom struggled valiantly with the florid ornamentation of their solos, which lay low in their ranges. Quinn and Cobb, however had other opportunities to strut their stuff throughout the rest of the program, where they fared considerably better. the Virgin Mary, including a second Magnificat, flanked by a setting of the antiphon "Regina coeli," creating a kind of Marian double header that had been a 1999 commission by Women's Voices from New Zealand composer Katherine Dienes. The central Magnificat section took its structure from the traditional antiphonal monastic performance practice. It alternated verses in plainchant with verses in a modern four-voice a cappella setting. Here as elsewhere in the program, the chorus performed with the creamy blend and perfect intonation. A minimal string ensemble of local pick-up pros accompanied the piece. The Vivaldi Magnificat shared the first half of the program with other sacred music, most of it associated with so necessary to bring off a cappella singing.

Many of the composers of music for women's chorus are, or have been, directors of female choirs who needed music to fill out a meager repertory. One such choral director was Johannes Brahms, who conducted a women's chorus and composed a large number of pieces for his charges, most of which nobody ever hears anymore. His own "Regina coeli" preceded Dienes's work on the program, sounding like quite another Brahms from the one we all know and love.

Also on the first half was an "Agnus Dei" by György Orbon (b.1947), a saccharine work with arpeggiated piano accompaniment, although it again demonstrated the smooth blend of the chorus and its precise control of dynamics. Also on the first half was Marylou India Jackson's effective arrangement of the spiritual "Steal Away" that gave the chorus a chance to demonstrate its stunning pianissimo.

The second half of the program was devoted to secular works, the centerpiece of which was the premiere of Lana Walter's a cappella Welcome Love. The four songs in the cycle each represent a different aspect of love: "A Welcome" ironically proclaims the power of enduring love; "The Mad Maid's Song" mourns a dead lover; "To My Dear and Loving Husband" is one of the few paeans to the joys of enduring marital bliss; and in "Pack, Clouds, Away!" the poet bids nature greet her beloved. Walter's music is charming and lightweight with only the gentle dissonance that characterizes some much contemporary music for church and secular choral groups.

But Welcome Love certainly holds up better than Three Shakespeare Songs , Op. 39 by the formidable Amy Beach. The mother of all serious American women composers, Mrs. Beach was permitted to pursue her not insignificant talent by a supportive husband, but these three "fairy" songs from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream written in 1897 are the epitome "Victorian Cloying" style. And speaking of cloying, "How Do I Love Thee," a doo-wop satire by Nathan Christensen on perhaps Brit Lit's most saccharine poem, provided some much-needed laughter to the program.

No choral program can do without a few folksong arrangements. To end the first half Lycan included an audience sing-along of "Jerusalem, My Happy Home" for which the chorus provided descants by Lycan. Clearly this was an audience of buffs, overpowering the chorus so as to make the descants inaudible. An arrangement with percussion of the Passover song "Chad Gadya" was a little outré and the only piece where the women seemed unsure of themselves, not least in pronouncing the Hebrew and Aramaic words. The program ended with arrangements of Thomas Allen's "The Erie Canal" and of Stuart Stotts' "Music in my Mother's House."

Women's Voices (http://www.womensvoiceschorus.org/ ) has a large following and markets recordings of its concerts as a fundraiser. They are also always seeking out new singers, but leave your operatic vibrato at home.