Under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, the North Carolina Master Chorale opened its 73rd concert season with a varied program of music for chorus and organ. They were joined in one selection by the Raleigh Boychoir, which also sang several selections conducted by their Artistic Director, Jeremy Tucker. The Master Chorale's accompanist, acclaimed pianist Susan McClaskey Lohr, served as organist.
The 170-voice Chorale filled the large chancel space and the entire front of Hayes-Barton Baptist Church. While an ensemble of this size could easily be sonically overpowering in a sanctuary of this size, the abundance of red carpet which covers the wide aisles serves to dampen the sound so that the chorus does not have to hold back. The invisible pipes of the organ speak primarily into the chancel, which helped the organ sound in the opening work – the 1865 Missa Choralis by Franz Liszt – to blend with the voices in its purely supporting role.
This mass, written at the Vatican when Lizst had become an Abbé in the Roman Catholic Church, contains none of the drama or harmonic innovations which characterized much of his secular music. It is essentially a kind of sacred-music wallpaper, with elements derived from plainsong and from counter-Reformation polyphony in a mid-19th century version of "easy listening." Voices from the Chorale filled the minimal solo and quartet demands of the work.
After intermission, the Raleigh Boychoir sang four varied pieces from their repertoire: J.S. Bach's chorale from Cantata 147, in the usual English version which has little to do with the original text and which defies understanding ("Jesu, joy of man's desiring," the last line of which, "soaring, dying 'round thy throne," is not an image which Gustav Doré would have used as inspiration for one of his engravings), John Rutter's sparkling setting of "For the beauty of the earth," Paul McCartney's "Blackbird," and Ruth Morris Gray's three-part setting of the Zulu folk song "Aya Ngena," which more than once reminded me of the Jewish Passover niggun, "Dayenu." While this 21-voice group did not sound like a traditional British boys' choir, their tone and blend were very good. Their diction was easily understandable, save for a few over-modified "a" vowels which rendered some words less easy to discern.
The Master Chorale members re-entered the sanctuary, but did not return to their previous location in the front of the church. Instead, they stood in the aisles, surrounding the audience in mixed-voice formation to sing Henryk Górecki's "Totus Tuus." This stereophonic-sound performance was the highlight of the concert, especially in the haunting pianissimo passages which conclude this 1987 Marian work first sung in Poland for Pope John Paul II.
Returning to the chancel, the Chorale sang Felix Mendelssohn's 1844 mini-cantata (or, as Sturgis described it, an "extended anthem"), "Hear my prayer," for soprano solo, chorus, and organ. Long a favorite of British cathedral choirs, some of whose performances were immortalized on 78-rpm discs, this is vintage Mendelssohn, its harmonies akin to those of the composer's oratorio "Elijah." Soprano Megan Crosson, a Chorale member, sang the solo lines with simplicity and vocal beauty – a perfect combination for this music. Lohr's sensitive organ accompaniment was equally appropriate for this miniature gem of a psalm-setting.
The concert concluded with Benjamin Britten's "Festival Te Deum," in which the Raleigh Boychoir joined the Master Chorale. This was not the most felicitous performance, with many of the choral phrases sung too marcato, the fortissimo-marked organ passages not assertive enough, and an unfortunate error in pitch in the concluding measures.
The Britten notwithstanding, this was a program of interesting and not-frequently-heard choral music, sung with distinction by an outstanding chorus, together with their young colleagues.