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On the day after Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina's retired and revered basketball coach and social activist, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, UNC conductor Susan Klebanow's choral ensembles and UNC composer Stephen Anderson showed another facet of excellence at this oldest of state universities.
The program's title was simply "Isaiah." With the exception of three "alleluia" settings, every work sung in the program contained texts from the Biblical book of Isaiah. (The Hebrew equivalent of the Greek "alleluia," "hallelujah," does not appear in the Biblical book of Isaiah.)
The twenty-seven voices of the Chamber Singers began with a rarely-heard verse anthem by Henry Purcell, "Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem." Joined by a string quintet, the chorus sang with clear tonal quality and diction. Missing was the sound of an organ, which would have been part of Purcell's ensemble; UNC's portatif organ would have served better than the essentially-inaudible harpsichord.
The well-balanced voices continued with two anthems by William Byrd: "Rorate coeli (or caeli, editions differ) desuper" and "Ecce Virgo concepit." Like Purcell's music, these works were written for choirs of men and boys. To Klebanow's credit, she did not try to make her sopranos sound like boy trebles. While the resulting sound was not what these Tudor and post-Tudor-era composers had in their heads, it was appropriate; only the high range of the soprano voices drew attention to the difference.
The remainder of the program moved us into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Chamber Singers closed their portion of the concert with Ned Rorem's Canticles II, English settings of ancient liturgical texts, and the most popular of Randall Thompson's choral works, "Alleluia." The choral sound was more idiomatic for these later anthems. Dating from 1972, the three Rorem Canticles are short settings of scriptural texts as used in Episcopal and Lutheran services, among others: "Benedictus es Domine," "Phos Hilaron" ("Hilarion" in the program), and "Ecce Deus." The latter canticle, in five voices, was the most evocative of the three. Thompson's "Alleluia," beloved of choruses everywhere since its 1940 premiere, was sung with warmth and affection, the chorus having shifted to quartet formation for its performance. While the low end of the alto and bass parts often lacked weight, the final chord was deliciously balanced to the available low-D sound that could be produced by members of the bass section.
The Chamber Chorus left the stage, to be replaced by the seventy-four singers of the Carolina Choir, which warmed up for the evening's featured work by singing another "Allelluia" setting, this time by Eric Whitacre. Originally composed for wind ensemble, then transcribed for strings, this one-word choral version captures some of the pastoral quality of the original settings.
Joined by UNC's Jeanne Fischer, soprano, a string ensemble of thirteen players, and the composer at the piano, Klebanow conducted the premiere performance of Stephen Anderson's Isaiah. While the composer does not use the term in writing about this work, it seems clearly to qualify as an "oratorio." Its text is entirely Biblical (portions of Isaiah, from its opening chapter through its penultimate one), and its forces include chorus and solo voices in both aria-like passages and in recitatives. (The work is discussed at some length in an article by Cliff Bellamy linked here.)
Isaiah is a powerful work, full of colors both vivid and, at times, pastel. There seems to be no hint of the jazz idiom for which Anderson is well-known, both as composer and pianist; the string writing is ornamented by frequent use of harmonics and is frequently dissonant, illustrating the "dark" images of certain texts with passages reminiscent of the "rapid collision" technique used by Alan Hovhanness. Indeed, the work's strongest impressions are made when Anderson's writing is at its most adventurous; it is only when he deliberately writes more "peaceful" sonorities that the harmony becomes bland and less captivating.
In the oratorio's seven movements, a number of memorable passages included: the opening pedal-point and the piano obbligato passages of "Besieged City"; Fischer's secco recitatives and the unusually-effective scoring of several lines of text for soprano, viola, and 'cello in "The Way of Peace"; the chorus' fortissimo declamations in "The Burden of…" (even though the fortissimo was strong enough to drown out the strings); and the peroration of the final movement, "Light is Come," with its message of hope delivered by soloist and chorus together, with the piano returning to prominence. There is even a tip of Anderson's hat to Handel's choral style in this movement, likely because some of the text was set in Messiah. As it began with the double bass, the work closes with a martellato stroke on that same instrument.
The audience received this premiere performance with enthusiastic applause, with good reason. With a minimum of revision to "tighten up" the fourth movement, "Speak from the Dust," which at first hearing does not sustain the work's momentum, Isaiah should be added to the canon of significant choral works drawing from that prophet's writing. A modern trilogy might well include Anderson's work along with Thompson's Peaceable Kingdom and Robert Starer's Ariel: Visions of Isaiah.
Prof. Klebanow conducted with clarity and sensitivity to the evening's texts and should be congratulated for designing such an interesting and challenging program for the edification both of her student performers and of the capacity audience at Hill Hall.