Choral Music Review



The Duke University Chorale: Spring Tour Program

March 20, 2003 - Durham, NC:


Concerts I normally eschew include anthologies of short choral works - except for programs chosen and directed by Rodney Wynkoop, the Triangle's finest choral director. A good house of friends and relatives braved the dense fog outside Baldwin Auditorium March 20; I hope the murky air didn't follow the Duke University Chorale back from their tour of Cardiff, Wales, and Salisbury, Bath, and London, England. Before intermission, most of the works were hymn-like, with an unusually large number by women composers. After intermission, selections appropriate for the British Isles were followed by spirituals and a Zulu folksong. The able piano accompanist was Glenn Mehrbach, who was joined by chorale member Stephanie Westen for Mack Wilberg's arrangement of the traditional Scottish ballad "My Love's in Germany," given with piano four hands accompaniment.

Eighteen selections were listed in the excellent program book, which included texts, the names of the singers, and extensive biographies. The Chorale has a fine, vibrant tone with well-balanced, agile sections that deal well with tricky rhythms or elaborate divisions of texts among the ensemble. On this occasion, diction and projection were ideal. The soloists did well: tenor Christopher Garson was heard in the classic Thomas "Fats" Waller number, "Ain't Misbehavin'," and soprano Jean Koff and bass Duncan McFayden were featured in William Grant Still's arrangement of "Steal Away to Jesus." Wynkoop explained that five chorale members were out sick including at least one soloist listed in the program, but two singers displayed vocal qualities well above what might have been expected. Soprano Kristen Blackman was brilliant and pure in her brief solos in Eric Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque" and in extended a cappella parts in Gwyneth Walker's "For Ever and Ever" and several others. Her voice had an almost instrumental quality in the Whitacre work, some parts of which were reminiscent of both "Atmospheres" and "Lux aeterna" by György Ligeti. Baritone Jesse Harrison Turner was outstanding in his robust solo in Leigh Joyner's arrangement of "Deep River."

One of the highlights of last season's Durham concert by the St. Olaf Choir (reviewed by CVNC ) was Australian composer Sarah Hopkins' wordless "Past Life Melodies," in which the composer drew upon techniques used by Mongolians as well as Australian aborigines. The effects as the overtone singing builds and blends are eerie. Indeed, it is somewhere between the sound of a didjeridu and a stalactite "organ" heard somewhere deep beneath the Roanoke Valley. Wynkoop and the Duke Chorale were every bit as fine with their performance as the St. Olaf visitors had been - no mean achievement! Stephen Hatfield's arrangement of the Zulu Folksong "Jabula Jesu," with its infectious beat, was another hit. Christopher Shreve, the uncredited percussionist, helped set the rhythm with an hour-glass-shaped drum. (It was fascinating to observe Wynkoop's final run-through of this peace, just before the concert, as he tried to get the singers to loosen up and get into the "swing" of the style - quiet the opposite of the usual stiff concert posture!)

About half the chorale assembled near the right of the stage to form the Chamber Choir, which provided a chaste rendition of the Sanctus and Benedictus from the Mass for Four Voices by William Bryd. Earlier, the full Chorale gave fleet and tripping renditions of two madrigals: Henry Purcell's "In these Delightful Pleasant Groves," and John Wilbye's "Draw On, Sweet Night."

"Danny Boy," movingly sung, was an apt encore for the times. I had never heard "Dear Old Duke," having been brought up on a lighter blue some miles west of the Blue Devils' campus. The fact that this was the last formal concert for the Chorale's graduating seniors added to the poignancy.