The final program of the Asheville Choral Society season was held at Arden Presbyterian Church. Three works by J.S. Bach, Kirke Mechem and Leonard Bernstein were described in guest conductor Michael Porter's program notes as demonstrating the use of songs to assuage anxieties during times of trial.
The sole work on the first half was Bach's Cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BSV 80. This is a cantata that uses a small orchestra and four soloists to present poetic commentary on the biblical texts in the chorales. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Gardner-Porter and tenor David Gresham were particularly good in their duet "Wie selig sind doch die." The other soloists were not as satisfying. Soprano Beth DuRoy had uncertain intonation and huge scoops in her aria. While baritone Phillip Haynie displayed a good declamatory style in his recitative, he struggled with his lower register during the bass/soprano duet. The result was very uneven.
The choir seems to be heavily weighted this year with sopranos and basses. There are more than twenty of each arrayed against six outnumbered tenors. This showed immediately in the opening choral fugue, where the lack of balance destroyed the effect. In the chorale "Und wenn die Welt voll," the soprano line totally dominated, and Bach's harmony was not apparent. In rehearsal, the conductor should have dealt with these balance problems. This performance was quite unsatisfactory.
The twentieth-century works on the second half of the program showed the choir to much better advantage. Two selections from Kirke Mechem's opera John Brown led off. The conductor, who had seemed detached during the Bach, came to life. There was more use of his left hand to shape the dynamics. The chorus responded with precision, excellent diction and long legato lines that were a pleasure to hear. They made the most of what is a lightweight piece of music.
Bernstein's Chichester Psalms contains three movements, with Hebrew text drawn from five psalms. The soloists included boy soprano Carl Kimbrough, who showed poise and thorough control. The final phrase of Psalm 23 "V'shav'ti b'veit Adonai L'orech yamim" ("I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever") was a high point of the evening. The other soloists, drawn from the choir, were at ease. Kyle Ritter's organ passages complemented the chorus, which seemed at ease singing in Hebrew. The Bernstein was the most satisfying work of the evening.
The Asheville Choral Society, which flourished under Lenora Thom's direction, used a different guest conductor for each concert this year. The three conductors were candidates to be the next Music Director. Dr. Porter was recently named to a post in Idaho, removing him from the running. The other two candidates demonstrated ability and fine musicianship. Whether the next director is Shane Long or Melodie Galloway, it will be good to have a permanent leader who can audition and guide this ensemble into its future.
*Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review (and others by this critic), click here.