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You might be forgiven if, hearing that the King's College Choir was coming to town, you thought first of the choir of King's College, Cambridge, which dates back to the time of Henry VI, and maintains the tradition of a choir made up only of men and boys (King's does have a choir of mixed voices, but it was only founded 12 years ago). I did, but in fact the first-rate choir performing at the William S. Newman Artists Series at UNC Chapel Hill was the Choir of King's College, London, with David Trendell directing. The Choir is a group of about 30 voices, both women and men, all undergraduates, and all recipients of choral scholarships (how about it, ye local universities – why not choral scholarships here in North Carolina?). It dates to 1945 and has a series of critically-acclaimed recordings to its credit.
Trendell and his students brought an exquisitely-sung and well-planned program to the not-so-welcoming acoustics of Memorial Hall. It is a pity that the oldest public university in the United States (and one based in Chapel Hill) has no chapel, for this a cappella music would have been far-better served with a resonant acoustic to give a glow to the chords after they were released. Memorial Hall is far too dry.
The evening began with the familiar "Tu es Petrus" by Palestrina, in a performance which reminded you that in addition to being an icon of sober contrapuntal practice, the composer was, after all, Italian, with lines ebbing and flowing according to the accentuation of the Latin. The chorus made a brilliant sound, with a beautifully pure, lively, and well-tuned sound from the sopranos, who dominated the texture. The blend was fine, and there was none of that immature and sophomoric "collegiate" sound that one frequently hears from young American singers. I could have imagined more darkness and depth in the tones of the tenors and basses, but they are after all barely out of their teens.
The first half continued with a motet by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, slower, with more static harmonies, and the Sanctus and Agnus from the Missa Simile est regnum by Alonso Lobo, with some interesting cross-rhythms in the triple-measured Hosanna. The most striking piece of music was the "Caligaverunt oculi mei" of Philippe Rogier, a Franco-Flemish composer at the court of Philip II, a talented figure most of whose music was lost in the Lisbon earthquake of 1756 (one might think of him as the musical colleague of El Greco). This dark piece was not so well-calibrated to the possibilities of the young singers, particularly the basses, who were neither loud enough nor deep enough. The first half concluded with Allegri's famous Miserere in an apparently abbreviated rendition.
After a brief Byrd motet, the second half explored different musical territory, with four movements from Le Cantique des Cantiques of Daniel-Lesur (1908-2002), with the composer setting the text in a French translation complemented by Latin interpolations making explicit the churchly interpretation of this extremely worldly poetry. The choir produced a much louder sound, usually well-tuned, but which obscured the delivery of the text, which had been crystalline in the first half. A brief piece by Rodion Shchedrin (no text provided, alas, and it was unclear what language the group was singing in) preceded the Bach motet, Singet dem Herrn, for which the group divided into two choirs. Perhaps closing the concert with this work was not the best of choices, for the group seemed to show how unsuited Bach's counterpoint was for the voice, particularly in what must have been a fatiguing acoustic for the singers.
All in all, quibbles aside, this was an enticing concert which demonstrated why England sets the world-standard for choral music. I can't imagine a single choir of American undergraduates which could have matched it. Thanks to the Newman series for helping to show what we should all be striving for.