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The wonderful Fine Arts Series of Edenton Street United Methodist Church has delivered yet again. The latest edition of the series brought to the grand sanctuary an appearance by the Schola Cantorum (School of Singers) choir of Westminster Choir College. Composed of second year students and led by James Jordan, this group serves as a stepping stone for membership in the storied Westminster Symphonic Choir, one of the premiere choral organizations in the world.
At their best, though, this group takes a back seat to none. Among several numbers on the protracted program before intermission was the noted “Ubi Caritas” by Westminster’s special friend, Paul Mealor (b.1975). This work garners unusual attention because it was commissioned by Prince William of Wales and premiered at his wedding to Catherine Middleton. “Where charity and love are, God is there.”
The “magnum opus” of the evening was the Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace) of Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). This huge six-movement piece was many years in the making, spanning the time of the two great world wars. It attempts to capture the composer’s grief over the futility and the destructiveness of war. Noteworthy contributors here were sopranos Amanishakete Cole-Felder and Temple Hammen and baritones Omar Soto and Conner Allison along with the powerful and martial piano of Corey Everly.
Nowhere in this chant-like lamentation does the typical Vaughan Williams tunefulness appear (contrast his famous Hodie Christmas cantata, with its marvelous melodies set to equally elevated texts). More than half of the text here comes from the writings of Walt Whitman, celebrated poet and widely known as a nurse in the American Civil War. Surely the most heart-rending is the fourth movement, Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans.” While arguably not as compelling as Holst’s treatment of that text, the movement carries the listener inexorably along within the military funeral procession for a fallen father and son. “Two veterans, son and father, dropt together, / … / The moon gives you light, / And the bugles and the drums give you music, / And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans, / My heart gives you love.”
After intermission came the height of choral excellence, leading with “Lux Nova” by Eric Whitacre (b.1970), a composer who never fails to stimulate. This section featured two more numbers by the aforementioned Paul Mealor. “O Sweetest Jesus” from his Crucifixus, was enhanced by piano and glockenspiel. Possibly the most nearly perfect choral work of the evening came with Mealor’s “Love’s As Warm As Tears.” Jordan managed these ninety-odd singers with chamber-like precision as they negotiated that text by C.S. Lewis. “Love’s as fierce as fire … Love’s as fresh as spring.”
Another “safe” featured composer was Morten Lauridsen (b.1943). Employing the poetry of James Agee, his “Sure on This Shining Night,” with Everly’s piano, carried on the high choral level of the preceding piece. The singers closed with Moses Hogan’s stimulating “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.”
“I Will Lift Mine Eyes” is the title of this 2015 concert tour of Schola Cantorum. To reflect that title, the group chose an anthem of the same name by Jake Runestad (b.1986) as the penultimate selection on the program. “From whence comes my help? / My help comes from the Lord....”
So, many thanks to such a quality ensemble for coming this way. And that very same level of appreciation is owed to Edenton Street United Methodist Church for making this visit possible.