Complemented by the combined artistry of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Seiger and keyboard accompanist Susan McClaskey Lohr, conductor Alfred Sturgis led the thirty-nine voices of the NC Master Chorale’s Chamber Choir in a guided tour through some of the 20th century’s choral gems. Music by Americans Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and Randall Thompson illustrated the wide stylistic range of these significant composers and reminded us of how much the styles of following-generation choral composers such as Arvo Pärt, Morten Lauridsen, and Einojuhani Rautavaara developed along similar paths.
In addition to conducting, Sturgis gave helpful verbal program notes to augment the excellent written notes by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn. The very well-attended concert was held in the welcoming acoustics of Hayes-Barton United Methodist Church.
The program opened with “Psalm 90,” one of Charles Ives’ earliest choral works, dating from the 1890s and revised in the early 1920s. Like his earlier “Psalm 67,” this work revels in polytonality (the chorus singing in two different keys at the same time) and unusual harmonic effects, including an organ pedal-point throughout the work and the use of tubular chimes and glockenspiel. Following the example of many Baroque composers, Ives illustrates in music a number of particular words or phrases of the text (“withereth,” “wrath,” “the light of thy countenance,” and “let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us”). To all this, the chorus brought excellent diction, pitch, and tone. While known principally as a pianist, Lohr handled the Buzard organ with ease.
Next came Aaron Copland’s a cappella “In the Beginning,” his 1947 setting of the creation story from the first chapter of the Bible’s Book of Genesis. This is challenging music for the performers, requiring from both mezzo-soprano soloist and chorus alike a rock-steady sense of pitch. Singing fifty-five pages of music with no instrumental support and ending on pitch is no easy feat, but soloist Seiger and the choir proved equal to the task. If some of the half-notes in the middle of phrases were not sustained enough to move the phrase along, and if Copland’s instruction to the soloist to sing “rather hurriedly” in the final solo passage was not followed to the letter, these are things of small significance in the context of a performance that was uniformly excellent in intonation, rhythm, and dynamics.
After intermission, the a cappella mode continued with William Schuman’s 1958 Carols of Death, settings of three Walt Whitman passages. Sturgis wondered aloud why Schuman chose the word “carols” for these excerpts from longer Whitman poems; perhaps the composer was thinking of one of the uses of “carol” as a verb: “to proclaim the glory of.” Whitman wrote often about the duality of death: it brings about both sadness (from the loss of life) and joy (because he considered death to be a new beginning). Each of Schuman’s settings is short and compact, although the second, “The Unknown Region,” exhibits more repetitive and disjunct passages; one wonders if Schuman was consciously trying to contrast his setting with the lyrical and extended melodic lines of the same text’s setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Each of the three was sung well. Sturgis’ conducting is never histrionic, but its clarity makes it easy for his singers to navigate the varying rhythms and moods of the music.
To close the concert, the choir left behind the more jagged harmonic language of Schuman to embrace the gentle harmonies of Randall Thompson’s Frostiana. Comprising settings of seven poems by Robert Frost, Frostiana is likely the most frequently performed of Thompson’s choral works with the exception of his unaccompanied “Alleluia.” Three of the poems are set for mixed voices, two for women’s voices, and two for men’s voices. The entire set was sung lovingly, the singers following Sturgis’ lead to produce lyrical lines of genuine beauty. The tenor section’s tone and blend were particularly gorgeous in the fifth movement, “The Telephone.” While the second note of sixteenth-note pairs was sometimes slighted in “A Girl’s Garden,” and the melodic lines of “Stopping By Woods” were affected by a similar slighting of off-beat notes, the overall performance was exemplary, as was Lohr’s pianistic artistry on the church’s Steinway. Her sensitive accompaniments were not only note-perfect but also captured each of the wide-ranging moods of the seven pieces.
Not long ago, I heard the Master Chorale’s large chorus perform Bach and Brahms works with the NC Symphony (reviewed by another critic here) and thought that the chorus had never sounded better. This Chamber Choir concert showed that same high level of musicianship and vocal sound. In sum, this was an evening of significant 20th century American choral music excellently sung.