Artistic director Sue Klausmeyer programmed three significant works for chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra for this Voices concert in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall: Ralph Vaughan Williams' cantata Dona Nobis Pacem and motet "Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge," followed by contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins' Te Deum.
The 117 members of the chorus sang well. Their diction was excellent and their balance remarkably good (save for lower bass notes), given that the men are out-numbered by the women by almost three to one (36 sopranos, 50 altos, 12 tenors, and 19 basses, according to the rosters in the program). The orchestra’s balance was less good, simply because sixteen string players, including only a single cello and a single bass, can't match ten wind, nine brass, and four percussion players in volume. Nevertheless, they were uniformly excellent in sound and musicianship.
Soprano Jeanne Fischer and baritone Eugene Galvin, both faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill, brought tonal beauty and insight to their sensitive readings of the Walt Whitman, John Bright, and Biblical texts in the Vaughan Williams cantata. Fischer's voice was able to rise above the fortissimo chorus when called for, but also to bring the final bars of the cantata to an exquisitely quiet close as the solo line descends from a pianissimo high G down to an even quieter middle E.
Galvin's sensitive reading of Bright's words (the score is marked parlando [as if speaking]) was particularly effective. This text was especially appropriate in this just-after-Passover season: "The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two sideposts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on."
One cannot fault the chorus for ignoring most of the ppp, pp, and p markings which Vaughan Williams sprinkles throughout Dona Nobis Pacem ("Grant us peace"). Indeed, the choral score alone contains more of these "quiet" directions than it contains their opposite "loud" directions (f, ff), but the chorus rarely reached even a mezzo-piano level. This is the responsibility of the conductor, whose decisions regarding Vaughan Williams' motet gave the audience only an approximation of what the composer actually intended.
The motet is scored for "chorus, semi-chorus and orchestra (or organ)." It further gives directions for replacing the semi-chorus with a baritone soloist and solo quartet if the work is performed by a small choir. Instead, we heard "chorus, baritone solo, and synthesizer." There was an orchestra for this concert, but they were not used. There is no organ in Memorial Hall, and the decision to use a Roland synthesizer, which bears no more relationship to an organ than the fact that it has a button to push which says "organ," was not even in the neighborhood of what Vaughan Williams intended. Voices are (British collective-noun usage intentional) not a small choir, and yet the semi-chorus parts were assigned solely to baritone Galvin – even the four-part sections, in which the other three parts were played on the synthesizer's lone "organ" sound. Where RVW writes a twenty-five measure organ solo introducing the motet's final section, not only was the sound nowhere near that of a typical English pipe organ, but notes had to be omitted because there was no pedalboard, the pedal notes then having to be played by pianist Deborah Hollis' hands along with all the other notes for which the hands are responsible.There must have been reasons why the composer's specifications were not followed, but they cannot have justified the result.
Sir Karl Jenkins' Te Deum will likely become as popular as his "Armed Man" Mass and his Requiem. Its vibrant score, relatively brief, features a rhythmic vitality which was captured by chorus and orchestra alike. Jenkins' style is unique, as is that of any significant composer, but here I thought of a synthesis of the styles of Francis Poulenc and John Rutter. Klausmeyer's tempi were accurate, giving rein to the colorful score's bouncy rhythms. The orchestra/chorus balance was not so favorable here, the strings sometimes overwhelmed by unison vocal passages sung by over one hundred singers and by three percussionists in addition to timpani. Nevertheless, this was a solid performance which should make many in the audience eager to hear more of this contemporary master's works.
[Why programs need editors: while Klausmeyer correctly stated, in her verbal program notes, that Dona Nobis Pacem was composed in 1936, the printed "message from the conductor" stated 1938 and also identified Bryn Terfel as a tenor, an alternative fact which would surprise the renowned bass-baritone.]