Choral Music Review Print



Choral Society of Durham Pays Tribute to Robert Shaw

December 7, 2001 - Durham, NC:


On Pearl Harbor Day, in Duke Chapel, Maestro Rodney Wynkoop led the 140-voice Choral Society of Durham in the first of two concerts that served as the ensemble's annual holiday programs and concurrently honored the memory of Robert Shaw, one of our nation's leading choral conductors. The event was a class act in every respect, starting with the program itself, which encompassed carols, spirituals, arrangements of two traditional hymns and a trio of mainstream choruses that sampled some of the best Western art music from across three centuries. The carols--a dozen were given--were sung in editions prepared by Shaw and his principal arranger Alice Parker, whose work was also celebrated earlier this season by the Raleigh Oratorio Society. The CSD's program book contained a glowing tribute to Shaw along with complete texts (or transliterations) and translations.

It's logical that Shaw is still remembered, two years after his death, for he is credited with having revolutionized the art of choral singing in America. That he was not the first important choral director here may be ascertained by delving into histories of our leading choirs, in which accounts the names of Hugh Ross, John Finlay Williamson, and other masters loom large, but Shaw stood apart from the start. He brought to his chosen art form new levels of precision and clarity of execution, in part by adopting techniques and methods long employed by the best orchestral leaders. The fact that Shaw himself had considerable symphonic experience during his long and distinguished career certainly didn't hurt, nor did his early work with conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter and other leading maestri, but his first big break came with Fred Waring. One of the hallmarks of his life's work was his unswerving devotion to traditional music, a healthy sampling of which formed the core of the CSD's concert. Shaw's heritage continues because many of his former singers and students are now in key positions as choral directors, and it is likely that arrangements he produced (with Parker, primarily) will figure in choral concerts, church services and elsewhere as long as people gather together to sing.

The Chapel was beautifully decorated for the occasion and the CSD, arrayed in quartets, looked impressive on its risers as it delivered the program. Wynkoop is a master in this business, and he continues to do miraculous things, infusing everything he undertakes with boundless energy. It's a brave leader who will offer music that many people in his audience have sung, in some cases, repeatedly; few of the carols were unfamiliar, but rarely have they emerged with such clarity--yes, even in the Chapel, with its notoriously long reverberation time! The soloists, all from the ranks of the CSD, were generally good, although from time to time their contributions were nearly swamped by the ensemble. Two selections sung by the CSD's 34-voice Chamber Choir provided intimate interludes in the otherwise full-choir evening.

Three spirituals arranged by Parker-Shaw and two more set by William L. Dawson were among the program's most compelling offerings and may serve as examples of the CSD's--and Wynkoop's--excellence. "I'm Goin' to Sing" was distinguished by a superb mixture of crystal-clear diction, perfect blend and balance, and intensity. "Sometimes I feel," which uses an infrequently-heard text and is pointed up with unusual dissonances, demonstrated the ensemble's strengths when working with a soloist--alto Laura Jones, in this instance. "John Saw Duh Numbuh" was among the evening's most exhilarating readings because of the layering of the various parts. The Dawson arrangements were a full-throated "Ain'-a That Good News" that seemed at times on the verge of raising the Chapel's roof and "Soon Ah Will Be Done," in which the choral singing suggested nothing less that the great choruses in Wagner's Flying Dutchman .

The two Dawson numbers and choruses from Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, Brahms' German Requiem (sung in English), and Haydn's Creation were performed at Shaw's funeral because they served as reminders of some of his greatest accomplishments and were given in Durham because the focus of the program was on Shaw. The first of these, an Ave Maria sung in Church Slavonic, stands well enough on its own and may have been the evening's most moving single performance. Brahms' "How Lovely is thy Dwelling Place," with organ accompaniment provided by Jane Lynch, was beautifully done, but for this listener, at least, the intrusion of the organ into what had been to that point an a cappella affair came as something of a jolt. For reasons not altogether clear, the concluding number, Haydn's joyous and celebratory "Sing to God, Ye Hosts Unnumbered," with its splendidly wrought fugue, and which involved four nicely balanced vocal soloists and organ, worked much better. It served as a positive and reassuring cap for a program that had included more than a few intensely serious works--works that honored the memory of Shaw and were concurrently well suited to the present world situation. We can celebrate when peace returns. For now, Wynkoop and his singers continue astutely to judge the national mood and respond to it with appropriate music, and for that all Triangle music lovers must be grateful.