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I have had the great privilege of reviewing the ECU Chamber Singers three times in the last five months; there is always much new to be heard and always growth beyond the time before. The venues have been different each time; previously St. Paul's Church in Greenville, the First Baptist Church in New Bern, and now, the A. J. Fletcher Hall, again in Greenville. While all the venues were good, Fletcher is definitely great.
The singers were unaccompanied, being given their notes by an electronic pitch pipe, probably a phone app. The chorus was just the right size for Fletcher, thirty-nine as listed on the program: ten each SAT and nine B. The conductor was ECU's brilliant James Franklin.
The wonderful singing began with a setting of two verses from the Song of Solomon, Canticle 6:4-5, by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, contemporary Finnish composer. The composition style was somewhat traditional; the singing was especially smooth and well balanced. With classes scheduled to end in two weeks, this final performance showed the chamber singers at their very best.
The "Salve Regina" of Francis Poulenc was another excellent vehicle to display the tightly controlled singing of this chorus. There is nothing better to my ears than young voices, and when combined with a conductor as special as Franklin, the music can be really nice. Poulenc tends to break phrases up into chunks, but the classic resolutions at the end were lovely and the ECU basses were superb.
Frank Martin's Kyrie from his Mass for Double Choir had the choir soaring, swelling, diminishing, and back for more. The delicious purity of the choir's voices more than made up for the occasional bouncing books and swaying bodies.
Ipseity by Asha Srinivasan (b. 1980) is music of another stripe. The words are extremely inaccessible until the clue is given, and then one hears "you are all you are," "you become you," and "you, you, you." The choir sounded well put together and in control of this piece. Srinivasan came on stage, introduced by Travis Alford, Assistant Professor of Music Composition and Theory at ECU. She spoke passionately about her composition; then it was performed again. The piece is not easily forgotten; there was rapt focus in both the singers and the audience around me. The vocalizing of the repeated words was very well done. This was the world premiere of this composition, commissioned as part of the New Music Initiative.
Younger than Srinivasan by two years, Greenville's own Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw's "and the swallow" (Psalm 84) enriched our evening with its loveliness. Shaw's style, while just as advanced, offers an incredibly smooth contrast to Srinivasan. I heard this difficult piece sung by these singers, under this director, in December of last year. It was very well done then and even better this time.
Wagner's "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser appeared on the Chamber Singers' concert bill in October of last year. It is a warhorse that serves very well both for extensive singing and displaying the skills of the Chamber Singers.
This concert was a very high point in a year of fine singing; both Franklin and the choir deserve full praise.