A May 2 concert in Greensboro's Christ United Methodist Church was the Bel Canto Company's fond farewell to David Pegg, their director for twenty years. The Bel Canto Company, founded in 1982 by Richard Cox of UNCG, was an outgrowth of the Greensboro Opera Company Chorus. The intent was to perform primarily opera and Broadway music with an emphasis on solos and small ensembles. At the same time David Pegg, Ivan Battle, and Loretta James created the Camerata Singers to guide music graduates in the Triad area into a choir that would offer the highest quality choral music of all historical periods to the community. Pegg left Greensboro for Kent State in 1984 and the two groups merged under the direction of Cox. Pegg returned to Greensboro in 1986, took over direction of the ensemble, and was able to realize his musical vision of a professional caliber choral ensemble. Bel Canto achieved "professional" status in 1994 when it joined Chorus America and began paying its singers a modest stipend.
Pegg earned graduate and undergraduate degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and pursued advanced studies at the University of Oklahoma, University of Iowa, University of Hartford, and Westminster Choir College. He is a widely-respected choral clinician, workshop leader, and adjudicator. He will continue his work as Director of Music at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem*, where he leads a comprehensive music program for children, youth, adults, and seniors, plus handbells. (This information is from Bel Canto's webpage and the season program booklet.)
Following the concert, a reception allowed the public and several former members of Bel Canto to honor Pegg with accolades, memories, gifts, and warm best wishes. A commemorative plaque was presented by the city of Greensboro. "The Emeritus Fund," established in Pegg's honor, will support Bel Canto's enrichment and educational programs. An ambience of warmth and sincere gratitude was evident throughout the evening. All the soloists, whose performances were consistently outstanding, were from the ranks of the chorus.
The concert featured some of the conductor's and chorus's favorites from the French and American choral repertoire. The cream of the crop of 20th-century French choral music was represented by the music of Fauré, Poulenc, and Duruflé.
In 1881, Gabriel Fauré and his student André Messager spent a holiday in a fishing village on the coast of southern France. Their delight in the place and enjoyment of the villagers led to the joint composition Messe de Pecheurs de Villerville, which was performed at Mass in the village. Some years later, Fauré replaced Messager's portions with his own and in 1906 published the Messe Basse (Low Mass). It consists of just four movements, omitting the Gloria and the Credo sections, and is imbued with the quiet lyricism that was later to find full expression in his Requiem. The Bel Canto Women and guest organist Loretta James give it a fine performance.
The Bel Canto Men sang the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise (Four Short Prayers of Saint Francis of Assisi) by Francis Poulenc. These exquisite a cappella pieces have a mystical and other-worldly quality about them that is enhanced by the all-male choral sound. It is harmonically-challenging work; in numbers II and IV a couple of voices seemed to veer briefly off pitch but not enough to distract or interfere with the pleasure these fascinating pieces brought to the ear. Perhaps the emotional nature of the farewell concert was a factor.
For Maurice Duruflé's "Four Motets on Gregorian Chants" the men and women came together and sang in perfect ensemble, with rock-solid pitch and the beautiful tonal balance that we have come to expect from Bel Canto. "Ubi caritas et amor" ("Where there is charity and love, God is there") was almost overwhelming in its warmth and deeply-projected reverence. The Marian verse, "Tota pulchra es" ("Thou art all fair, O Mary"), was equally gorgeous. "Tu es Petrus," the most energetic of the four motets and the briefest, was winsome and uplifting. For "Tantum ergo," the sopranos quote the original chant while the tenors follow, in canon, with an ornamented version of the melody. It was very nicely done.
The second half of the concert began with French poetry from Les Roses by Rainer Maria Rilke, set to music by American contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen. Ever since Les Chansons des Roses first appeared in 1993, the piece has been a favorite with college and community choruses, and wherever it is performed, it is described as exquisite and transcendent. I believe the five poems about the fragrance of roses – and their thorns – were sung in a state of grace on this occasion. The piece is given a cappella until the transition to "Dirait-on," the final song, when the piano joins the choir with quiet arpeggios. Before beginning this song, some choruses I have heard stop briefly and to check their pitch, to make sure it has not sagged. Bel Canto did not pause, and the pitch was dead on! It was clear how much pleasure the chorus found in preparing and performing this music, for they gave the audience comparable same pleasure, in abundance!
Wake Forest University Composer-in-Residence Dan Locklair's On Cats brought lightness, humor, and a different sort of pleasure to the Bel Canto audience. Five poems from Vachel Lindsay, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Van Doren, and John Ciardi provide text for some imaginative and colorfully picturesque music. Regrettably, there was apparently not enough space in the program to print the texts of these poems – or any of the texts that followed. Nevertheless, with the help of Locklair's descriptive music and Bel Canto's excellent diction, the messages and the delight got across just fine.
A line of Stephen Sametz's "I have had Singing" was quoted in the helpful program notes by Wendy Looker – "I have had pleasure enough, I have had singing." For those who have sung in school or church choirs, community choruses, or church or synagogue congregations or even in the shower – and that should include about all of us – that line says it all. The music was simple yet richly harmonized and eloquently sung.
The concert closed with three spirituals: "I Want to be Ready," arranged by Greensboro resident Ted Hunter, "Give Me Jesus," arranged by L.L. Fleming, and "Ride On, King Jesus" arranged by Moses Hogan. For "Give Me Jesus," former Bel Canto singers joined the current group, adding more than half again the number. The pretty much straightforward hymn-spiritual came from the heart and in turn filled the hearts of the audience. I must however say that these numbers made me both conscious and sad that this nearly lily-white choir and audience wasn't more inclusive.... This is a vexation not unique to Greensboro or to Bel Canto that calls community choruses everywhere to task.
After singing James Erb's delicious setting of "Shenandoah" for an encore, Pegg turned the baton over to Welborn Young, already at work on next season's programs. We will hear more of him later and more of Bel Canto without doubt. The maestro is gone. Long live the maestro!