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The musical offerings were rich indeed in the Carolina Concert Choir's third concert of their season. In his ninth year as Artistic Director and Conductor, Bradford Gee programmed an ambitious array of choral repertoire spanning over 400 years. Monteverdi's concertato motet "Beatus Vir" and Mendelssohn's chorale cantata Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten were performed with an accompanying string quintet (Ralph Congdon and Lillian Hall, violins, Carla Wright, viola, Tyler Ray, cello, and Rip Nolan, double bass) and dominated the first half. Later in this interesting and eclectic program was a series of hymns and spirituals where the choir seemed to be most at home, most of it performed a cappella and some arranged by Kenton Coe, Composer in Residence to the choir. Katherine Menefee Price serves as the ensemble's accompanist and was assisted by organist Howard Bakken. Full texts (including those in English — thank you!) with translations were provided in the program.
Opening the concert was Monteverdi's "Beatus Vir," a spirited setting of Psalm 112 in 6 parts from the collection Selve morale e spirituale (Moral and spiritual forests) of 1641 which was very much influenced by his secular madrigal style. Against a walking bass is a series of spirited exchanges between choral and florid instrumental parts which are structured according to the paired verses of the text. It was a difficult work with which to open, as its transparent textures would expose any unevenness among the sections. The choir's rhythmic insecurities could be heard generally in tentative entrances and tempi at odds with the instrumental ensemble. Because the focus seemed to be on trying to stay together, the singing lacked the sort of phrasing that floats above the steady pulse laid down by the bass. The same challenges were also heard in the elaborate second movement of the Mendelssohn cantata, where the choir consistently lagged behind the instrumental ensemble.
In between these works was JohnTavener's "Song for Athene," composed in 1993 and made famous as part of the funeral music for Princess Diana in 1997. Here the choir was on more congenial ground and rendered a stunning and starkly beautiful a cappella work. Tavener's ancient choral methods — a recurring refrain on the single word "Alleluia" and splendid, arching vocal lines that emanate from and return to perfect consonances — sounded magnificent in the reverberating stone church.
Following intermission was a splendid performance of Benjamin Britten's Festival Te Deum which was composed in 1944 for a church in Swindon. The work proceeds in choral unison for the first half, only to blossom later into radiant parts and a soprano solo at the petition "O Lord, save Thy people," sung by Caroline Rollins. The dramatic text evoked a spirited and finely nuanced performance with some of the most impassioned singing of the concert.
Next came a beautiful set of three hymns showcasing the compositional skills of Mr. Coe. His arrangement of Anthony Showalter's "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," a serene setting in lieu of a romping revivalist style, began with women's voices, then full choir. Coe's original a cappella setting of "Precious Lord" to a Thomas A. Dorsey text was a showstopper of warmth and intimate beauty. His clever arrangement of "Cleansing Fountain" evoked some of the impish compositional tricks of Charles Ives, a "piano drum" in the accompaniment and, in one brief section, music in two different keys. Another high point of the evening was Fred Gramann's "Still, Still With Thee," an impassioned setting of Harriet Beecher Stowe's text which featured retired flute professor Paul Doebler on its silvery flute obbligatos and alto soloist Judy Meinzer. The work's long instrumental interludes allowed for quiet contemplation of Stowe's reverential words, an experience much akin to worship, and drew the audience's warmest response.
The program ended in familiar territory with three spirituals, "Poor Man Lazrus," "All My Trials," and "Ride the Chariot." Two choral benedictions served as encores — Peter Lutkin's "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" and "A Quiet Alleluia" by Coe.