The Bel Canto Company under the direction of its Artistic Director and Conductor Welborn E. Young, initiated its "Bel Canto & Friends" season Saturday night in Christ United Methodist Church. The season is so titled because, according to Young, he has "invited additional singers or ensembles to join" the BCC. Thus, in this concert, the 30-plus voices of the Bel Canto were augmented by an extra eight singers.
The larger ensemble worked well with the opening "Let the People Praise Thee," a work for organ and voices written by William Mathias (1934-92) for the wedding of Lady Diana to Prince Charles. This is a sprightly, joyful work, and John Alexander's exuberant organ playing provided the perfect addition to the enthusiastic singing.
Perhaps the most impressive singing of the evening was the Miserere Mei, an a cappella work for two choirs and two cantors by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). It was written for the last few days of Holy Week and was a staple in the Papal Choir, being regularly sung in the Sistine Chapel. With one choir placed in the balcony and the other at the altar, the work is a tour-de-force of spatial music-making; Young did a superb job of keeping all the forces together in what could have been a logistical nightmare. Some of the singing is what makes the BCC so wonderful — marvelous flexibility, impeccable intonation, and exquisite ensemble.
The next three works were sung by the BCC "without friends." The joyous "My Spirit Sang All Day" by Gerald Finzi (1901-56) contrasted nicely with the more gentle and soothing "The Lord is My Shepherd' from John Rutter's Requiem (1985), which featured Alexander back on the organ and was conducted by BCC member Robert Matthews.
The first half of the evening concluded with the three-part "Hymn to St. Cecilia" by Benjamin Britten (1913-76). This is a difficult work for both the audience and the choir, and one wished that the English text were printed in the program to help negotiate the ever-changing textures and tempos of the piece.
BCC and friends were joined by boy sopranos John Norris, Clark Spillane, and Eli Whitehouse, and instrumentalists John Alexander (organ), Bonnie Bach (harp), and Lace Drege (percussion) for a lively and colorful performance of the 2nd of Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. This is a delightful work, full of contrasting sounds, and started the second half of the program off in good style.
The famous Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-81) has served the composer well, with the original string quartet version and two successful transcriptions. The BCC and friends presented the seldom-heard Agnus Dei that the composer arranged for eight-part choir. This is an evocative version, and the climactic moments are moving, although some of the entrances were a bit sloppy in Saturday night's performance.
The BCC offered four short works of varying mood. "McKay," arranged by Carol Barnett (b.1949) begins with the men singing slowly until the women join in a livelier section. The poignant "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger," arranged by Gilbert Martin (b.1941) presented an updating of the familiar tune. "The Old Church," arranged by Stephen Paulus (b.1949), displayed the impressive dynamic range and the rich blend of the choir. The printed program concluded with "By and By" arranged by Carol Barnett.
A single encore was offered the nice-sized audience: the George Shearing arrangement of "Who Is Sylvia," which took some motives from the Schubert setting to create a more contemporary sound.