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The Sunday evening was a dark one as storm clouds hung low and menacing over central and eastern North Carolina. But for a sizable and hardy crowd in Duke Chapel, those threats were effectively vanquished by the Vocal Arts Ensemble with their presentation of “A Time of Peace.” Conductor Rodney Wynkoop led the thirty singers in a wide range of pieces that rarely wandered far from the theme of the evening. He was assisted by organist and pianist Jane Lynch who provided solid support throughout, especially so, it seemed, in the “Verleih uns Freiden” (Give Us Peace) of Mendelssohn and Purcell’s “O Give Thanks.” In the latter number, Kristen Blackman, Erica Dunkle, Chad Kearsley, and Tom Jaynes provided expert solos and smooth quartet work.
Opening were two treatments of Psalm 117, the “Lobet den Herren” (Praise the Lord) by Praetorius, followed by Bach’s hundred-year newer version, the Motet No. 6. Cellist Virginia Hudson accompanied the Bach piece, but unfortunately her cello strains (as with Wynkoop’s occasional remarks) never made it very far past midpoint in the audience. The aforementioned Mendelssohn and Brahms’ exquisite “Es ist das Heil uns Kommen her” (Salvation has come unto us) rounded out the “traditional” offerings on the program.
Elizabeth Terry’s excellent program notes described Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden(Peace on earth) as occurring “at the brink of his exploration into atonal works.” Still, its complexity and denseness make it somewhat forbidding and inaccessible on early hearings. It remains, though, a true masterpiece of choral literature, rewarding those who persevere. Wynkoop held the singers with a taut rein, eliciting particularly sparkling sound from the sopranos. It was pleasing to detect no lag in pitch as the singers made their way through those difficult lines.
The program featured three contemporary composers who have employed texts by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Henry Purcell” by Duke faculty and Ensemble member Paul Leary received its world premiere. Featuring solos by Patricia D. Philipps and (again) Chad Kearsley, it seemed to be of the grand tradition of anthems. Its powerful harmonies and tunefulness guarantee that it will stand up to repeated hearings. Gwyneth Walker’s “This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made” presented wide variations on Isaac Watts’ original work and featured fine solos by Elizabeth Terry and Eric Campbell. “Peace” by Robert Dickow, an especially beautiful work, posed the intriguing question, “What pure peace allows the alarms of wars…?”
The men of the chorus, using the Noble Cain arrangement, declared that they “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” This was an obvious audience favorite.
The singers decided they had taken the “high road” long enough when they launched into Sam Pottle’s version of “Jabberwocky,” where they “did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” The piano and an assortment of unlikely instruments assisted them, devices like rattles, xylophone, ratchet and glockenspiel. The outlandish sound effects, along with otherworldly whoops and yells, did Lewis Carroll proud. Somewhere during the melee the Jabberwock was indeed dispatched. And the enthusiastic audience, rising as one, had no longer a reason to shun the frumious Bandersnatch. A few could even be heard murmuring “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”