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There are times when everything comes together in a performance. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's a rare and wonderful thing! At Christ Church, New Bern, this performance of John Rutter's Requiem was the all round finest musical performance I have ever heard in eastern North Carolina.
In advance I was somewhat skeptical about this performance by a small-town Sunday service church choir of twenty-one members augmented by two guest choristers in each section, and they were not professional hired guns in every case. I had my doubts about placement of the choir and instrumentalists at one end of the church on risers and the organ in a gallery at the other end of the church, even with a Wifi video feed from the conductor to the organist. My doubts continued with the extensive "tuning" or warming up of the glockenspiel before the concert. The house was sold out and people packed into their seats early on. Of course there were the usual rich burghers who walked right down front expecting to find seats; they stirred up a little to-do when they found no seats. And there was the usual pre-concert chatter. But when the choir began to file in and take their places on risers, accompanied by conductor and choirmaster Virginia Bolena, a hush fell over the audience that was not broken until the end of the music.
The Requiem begins with a complete haunted house effect from the instruments, dispelled by the glorious sunrise of the choral entry "et lux perpetua." From the beginning, balance was perfect, timing was perfect, and intonation was perfect. The word "requiem" against the harp, played by Caroline Scism, was delicious. The surround-sound effect created by the organ in the rear gallery was an enhancement, not a distraction.
The second movement, "Out of the Deep," with its English words, is a sharp contrast with the Latin of the first movement. The powerful cello solo that opens the movement includes extensive double stopping, executed with excellent style by Katherine Haroldson. As the choir built to an intense crescendo there was no loss of singing quality.
Movement three, "Pie Jesu," is accompanied by oboe (Bo Newsome), flute (Christine Gustafson), organ (Casey Whaley), and harp, balanced against soprano soloist Jean Reichenbach and the choir. The crystal voice of Ms. Reichenbach soared in the high passages and projected gently in the soft passages. Her voice is clear and devoid of wobble; she's a delight to hear.
The percussion playing of Jon Wacker gave the exact right quality to movement four, Sanctus. Wacker got more out of two timpani than all the drums of Berlioz's Requiem, and his glockenspiel sparkled. There was excellent separation between the four parts of the choir as they built to a very powerful climax, troubled only by a little tenor yelling.
The Agnus Dei, movement five, had excellent Latin diction; it must have taken a lot of work, although it sounded totally natural and unrehearsed. The haunting repeated note of the timpani gave the movement a penetrating spirit all its own. The keen diction prevailed as the piece moved into the "man that is born of a woman" section, and even against the lumpy Rutter harmonies as they returned to the "Agnus Dei" text, which Rutter makes sound more like the Dies Irae.
Movement six is Rutter's setting of the Twenty-third Psalm, which was originally written as a free-standing anthem. There was perfect coordination between the instruments at the front of the church and the organ in the gallery. The harp cascaded deliciously against the oboe, and the sopranos are to be commended for their smooth tone, devoid of " little-old-lady" quavering. The tenors had gotten the yelling out of their system and cooperated perfectly with the basses. In this movement Rutter avoids many of the conventions of classical choral music, giving the choir very singable music. The choir responded by singing with a deft touch, even in the crescendi.
In the closing movement, Lux aeterna, Rutter provides a very difficult soprano solo, awkward intervals with no place to hide or to check oneself; Ms. Reichenbach was untroubled by this and sang clearly and precisely. There's a little bit of Rutter humor here. At the end of the phrase "they rest from their labors," there is a very long held note for the soprano. When she is finally allowed to come off the note and resolve the phrase with a brief final note, the choir sings softly in the background, "they rest from their labors," not a little irony. The harp and cello enter again and the choir finishes with more excellent diction, offering a strong message of hope.
From start to finish, this was a magical performance, untroubled by questions of informed instruments, poor tuning, poor intonation, soprano wobble, or any of the million and one things that could have beset it. This is real music, to the highest professional standards. Christ Church has had a tradition of offering artistic treats to the community, such as the Lenten concert series. This concert is a prime example of those treats, and it is to be hoped that this sold-out success is the forerunner of many more such offerings. Bravo, brava, bravi all!
Note: Mr. Parsons is this parish's newsletter & website graphic designer.