The Music Center, a program of the City of Greensboro Parks and Recreation, supports some 16 community ensembles that present free concerts including those of the Choral Society of Greensboro. Choral Society conductor Jon Brotherton chose an enterprising selection of 20th century English choral works for their Fall concert, pairing the ever popular John Rutter (b. 1945) with the little-known Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998). A sizable and attentive audience filled the pews of Christ United Methodist Church, one of the city's most active arts venues.
Geoffrey Bush became much taken with the English choral tradition dating from his five years as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral between 1928 to 1933. At Oxford he studied with and was heavily influenced by John Ireland. Bush taught at both Oxford and later at King's College London while maintaining his composition and piano accompanying performance activities. There are two versions of In Praise of Mary for soprano solo, chorus and orchestra (1955), one for full orchestra and the one conductor Brotherton chose, for chamber orchestra of strings, organ and timpani. The concert's excellent program contained texts and a succinct note by Brotherton. The work is divided into six parts. The first movement combines an extended orchestral introduction with a contemplative treatment of "Hail Mary." The second movement is in "three sections consisting of rhapsodic chant-like passages for solo soprano separated by a more energetic choral passage for gloria in excelsis." Dissonant harmonic changes give the third movement a mystical quality. The challenging fourth movement uses a 15th century text Adam Lay Ybounden and abounds in frequent meter changes and provocative harmonies. The solo soprano sings a "slow, contemplative middle section, 'heaven's queen,' followed by a fanfare-like choral setting of "Queen of Heaven." The equally engaging fifth movement frequently called the "Corpus Christi Carol," ranges from the gently rocking opening "Lully lullay" to the climactic moment "at which the chorus sings forcefully in chromatic harmony "corpus Christi." The final movement begins with an extended "alleluia" and ends with a repeat of music from the opening two movements.
Perhaps my lack of familiarity with Bush's teacher John Ireland led to finding similarities to Ralph Vaughan-Williams' pastoral scoring such as On Wenlock Edge or "Serenade to Music." Bush's writing for strings was very striking and the vigorous organ part implied equally imaginative scoring for woodwinds and brass. Brotherton led a well-prepared and effective, well-balanced performance. Andre Lash exploited the full range of Christ Church's Charles Fisk Op. 82 organ. The ad hoc string ensemble was excellent as was timpanist Peter Zlotnick who had many striking moments in Bush's remarkable score. Whether singing in mass or divided into sections, the chorus' texts were sung with extraordinary clarity no matter the dynamic range or tempo. Soprano Heather Teague-Sloan was outstanding, singing with pure, even pitch across a very wide dynamic range and displaying clear diction. Her power was astonishing.
John Rutter is probably the most popular of living English choral composers. He was inspired to compose his setting of Magnificat by J.S. Bach's masterful setting of the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke I: 46-55). Like Bach's, Rutter's concludes with a repeat of the opening movements and uses traditional Gregorian plainsong melodies. Rutter adds three extra elements into the standard Latin text: a haunting setting of the beautiful 15th century poem "Of a Rose, a lovely Rose," the Sanctus from the Ordinary of the Mass, and a Marian antiphon, "Sancta Mary." The composer wanted to write a Magnificat filled with the spirit of exuberant Mediterranean festivals. It is in seven parts. To the string players used for the Bush work were added a flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horn, and additional percussion. Bongos and a snare drum emphasized the syncopation Rutter often employs.
Brotherton led a very clear and vigorous performance. Again the diction, dynamics, and agility in fast tempos of the chorus were extraordinary. Three soprano soloists sang with good diction and pleasing tones. Lauren Smith was nicely ethereal in setting No. 4, "Et misericorda" and Jeannine Delcambre was balanced and clear in No. 6, "Esurientes." Soprano Laura Worst was not listed in the printed program but contributed nicely in the "Sancta Maria" portion of the concluding No. 7, "Gloria Patri." Lash's organ playing was excellent as was the solos of bassoonist Carol Bernstorf, clarinetist Anthony Taylor, flutist Linda Cykert, and oboist Ashey Barret. Mary Boudreault produced some gorgeous sustained French horn notes and concertmistress Eve Hubbard's solo was fine.