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A program by the typically excellent East Carolina University Chamber Singers would have been just fine. But for a program titled “From Heaven to Earth: Choral Music Through the Ages,” the Chamber Singers were joined by a truly outstanding high school choir, and this doubled the audience enjoyment of a concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in late February. This was not a high school “show choir,” complete with choreographed routines to accompany mainly pop music. This was the Pinecrest High School Chamber Ensemble, a group of 60 voices from Southern Pines who sang Latin and German texts from memory, with unfailingly crisp diction, spot-on pitch and a sense of choral musicianship that would be the envy of many a college ensemble.
The Pinecrest ensemble sang before North Carolina choral directors in November and generated considerable enthusiasm for their performance. That enthusiasm was not misplaced. Director Erin Plisco has assembled a group of young singers — about evenly divided between boys and girls — who demonstrated that they know their way around Hans Leo Hassler, Tomás Luis de Victoria and Felix Mendelssohn. They can handle the unusual harmonies and tricky rhythms of Gerald Finzi, and they also perform quite well more contemporary music of Kevin Memley, Keith Jarrett and Matthew Harris.
Hassler’s “Verbum Caro Factum Est” included sections of legato singing by the girls with more marcato singing by the boys, and despite this tricky interplay, not a beat was lost. Victoria’s “Jesu Dulcis Memoria” flowed beautifully, with nice suspensions and a surprisingly strong bass line. Mendelssohn’s “Weihnachten” concluded with a grandly sung “Alleluia.” Finzi’s “Nightingales” included passages in a near-speaking cadence along with more traditional measures, and this did not deter the young singers. A highlight was “Radiance” by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, arranged by Kerry Marsh, simply a lovely piece that is quite popular in high school and college choral circles. And the challenging suspensions and varying rhythms of Memley’s “Ave Maria,” which bore some resemblance to Morton Lauridsen’s music, were handled quite well.
Andrew Crane, director of ECU choral activities and conductor of the Chamber Singers, chose sacred music from the 18th century to modern times, and the college singers handled the different demands of the music with their usual skill and musicianship. The highlight of the Chamber Singers’ program was Benjamin Britten’s "Festival Te Deum," Op. 32, in honor of the centennial of the composer’s birth. Accompanied nicely by Andrew Scanlon, organist at St. Paul’s, the piece fairly sparkled, from the strong unison opening through staggered entrances by the sections, to the rich choral accompaniment to soprano Jordan Winslow’s solos. This is a short Britten composition that is more accessible than some, and the Chamber Singers gave a terrific performance.
The singers opened with “What Stood Will Stand” by Paul Halley, which started with a bold “Alleluia” in unison from the tenors and basses and included an incredibly long sustained pitch among some basses while other singers went on to succeeding sections. Alto Morgan Lane and bass Scott Wilson had nice exposed parts at the end. The singers delivered fine performances of Josef Rheinberger’s “Ave Regina Caelorum” and Gottfried August Homilius’ “Machet die Tore Weit,” with the former notable for especially good tapering off at the end of phrases and the latter notable for its bright and lively reading in a double choir setup.
An unusual Agnus Dei from contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, inspired by his time in the desert Southwest, contained nice harmonies and created the soundscape of a sunrise. The “Dona nobis pacem” at the end was lovely. The singers also presented Moses Hogan’s high-energy arrangement of “The Battle of Jericho,” directed most enthusiastically by graduate student Christopher Smith, and this was quite the crowd pleaser. Smith showed considerable sensitivity to the demands of the music and was quite clear in his direction of the various voice parts, especially shifting dynamics.
The two choirs combined on Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “All Creatures of Our God and King,” based on the Lasst uns erfreuen hymn tune, and the approximately 100 voices nearly raised the roof of St. Paul’s with majestic singing. The third verse by tenors, baritones and basses was a special treat.
Especially noteworthy during the opening series of selections by the high school singers was their total concentration on Plisco’s directing. Perhaps singing without music automatically results in this, but one could sense the strong bond between singers and conductor. To most in the audience, the only real difference between the two groups was the youthfulness of the high school singers’ voices. The Chamber Singers do have remarkably mature pipes, but the Pinecrest High School singers, if they so choose, would be able to step in and succeed the ECU singers with no difficulty at all in a few years, so expert has been their training and experience thus far.
Note: The Chamber Singers recently received the American Prize in Choral Performance, College/University Division - a big honor for one of our superior singing groups. For details, click here.