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Twenty-five years! Can it be that long since I first marveled at the clear, resonant blend of the vocal ensemble that has become treasured by a select but perennial audience in Winston-Salem as the Piedmont Chamber Singers? Picture pews to seat about 400, nearly filled, poised upon a bare slate floor. The sanctuary of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on Parkway Drive, in Winston-Salem, is the newly-selected performance space for the principal concerts of the PCS in its Silver Season.
The space to be filled with vocal resonance rises to a great height, its contemporary rafters inspired by Gothic architecture. The windows appear to be painted, more like murals than stained glass. Missing to immediate view is a pipe organ, impressive when observed in the rear balcony. It is a Farmer organ, crafted locally, and Kristin Farmer, resident organist and harpsichordist for this program, is the spouse of the builder.
The Singers filed into position to extended applause. It had been announced that the program had experienced an entire shift, which we quickly noted would tend to reshape our evening, all for the better. Guest conductor for this first concert of the 25th anniversary season was Donald Armitage, Director Emeritus of the group. He was welcomed by the audience with a new surge of applause. Armitage holds a "day job" at Augsburg Lutheran Church, in Winston-Salem, but a music director and organist's position is actually night and day. For only 21 years did he find time for the PCS. He was a founder, together with Sally and Bob Gant.
Armitage, a dedicated church musician, naturally saw the value of opening with Thomas Tallis (1505-85), the text of whose "If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments" continues "...and I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another comforter, that He may bide with you forever, e'en the Spirit of truth." (The word usage and capitalization are as stated in the program; my tradition would also capitalize "Comforter" and "Truth," but that is another matter.) Suffice it to say that having taken their pitch from the harpsichord tones, this a cappella work became a lovely invocation, rather than the intended beginning of the second half of the program. As an invocation, it did not matter that the English words were not heard by the audience. They could be read in the program, and they were heard by the Muse.
The moment the chorale undertook to sing "Ave Verum Corpus" by William Byrd (1543-1623), I realized that indeed I had not lost my keen hearing, as the Latin words came through serenely and clearly! There followed in perfectly executed English two Motets on texts of Metaphysical Poets, composed in 1988 by Daniel Gawthrop: "Thou didst hear me," by George Herbert (1593-1633), and "In what torn ship," by John Donne (1571-1631).
The Handel ensemble, a small orchestra of Piedmont-area virtuoso players, struck up a tempo fit for a king to introduce the voices that sang "O Praise the Lord with One Consent." From the first urgent phrases of the strings with harpsichord, there was no mistaking the composer, and the quality never waned under the bow of Handelian concertmaster John Pruett, whose work in Messiah , in Southern Pines, in January 2002, had been outstanding. Maestro Armitage molded the instruments and voices into a homogeneous blend with a clarity of tone that seemed to bounce back from the gray stones beneath, surrounding us.
There were Handelian solos involved to complete the sequence of the so-called "Chandos Anthem No. 9" ("O Praise the Lord with One Consent). It was a pleasure to see listed (and hear) a familiar tenor and bass, whose work in Messiah we had admired during a Southern Pines Handel On Hunger event in 2000.
Yet except for some extremely beautiful baritone tones from John Williams (entirely acceptable), the soloists blended into the entire work, never standing out as other than part of the continuity of the work itself. The soprano solo, by Marilyn Taylor, was as pleasant as Richard Heard's solo tenor contributions. Alto Lee Morgan had a little difficulty with the range, and her voice lacked resonance this evening. It was delightful to note that Heard's words, proclaiming that God is great, closely resembled "And I will shake...," from Messiah ; he performed a glib reading of his Handelian "Air."
After intermission, the string ensemble became a small orchestra, with oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and harp, to accompany the evening's featured work, "The Sprig of Thyme," a suite of eleven English folksongs arranged by John Rutter in 1994. The printed program showed it before the intermission, but it served admirably as the evening's finale. Addressing the audience, the honored conductor mentioned that what he thinks Rutter does best is setting already existing songs. Several you might have recognized were "The Bold Grenadier," "I Know Where I'm Going," and "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton." I would note that "The Willow Song," in which the volume increased by contrast to most other offerings, was the only thing that would remind one of an ordinary but very wonderful chorus. All else, delivered with a delicately sonorous chamber sound, was transcendent.
The re-ordered program was well-received, and it served as a fine conclusion, indeed, to "Piedmont Chamber Singers Day," October 19, 2002, as proclaimed by Mayor Allen Joines, of Winston-Salem. As I had picked up in the foyer a copy of a newsletter invitation to hear this "choral bouquet," (the word-designation of Don Armitage), I nevertheless regretted that we had not brought floral bouquets to bestow upon the conductor and all participants in appreciation of this ethereal treat, but the seriously well-deserved standing ovation, after long applause from seated patrons during the bows, probably sufficed. Together with founders Armitage and Gant, four twenty-five-year singers were recognized. They are Mary Armitage, Clara Allen, Robert Ulery and John Burchette.