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The East Carolina University Chamber Singers, poised to compete in the international Tolosa Choral Contest in Spain in late October-early November, provided an immensely satisfying preview of their competition repertoire and demonstrated once again just what an excellent choral singing program can be found in Greenville.
Under the direction of Dr. Andrew Crane, the three dozen singers drew an overflow audience to A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall (almost as many watched the performance on closed-circuit television in the lobby as were seated in the small auditorium), and they did not disappoint in a widely varied program that meets the requirements of the competition — older polyphony, more current polyphony, Basque music, and music native to the ensemble's country of origin.
From the lilting "Gaude et Laetare" by Sweelinck to a rousing medley of songs from West Side Story and a highly-charged spiritual, "Daniel, Servant of the Lord," the Chamber Singers fired smoothly on all cylinders, executing the various demands of the music effortlessly – including three selections in the Basque language. Nearly all the music was sung a cappella (pianist Eric Stellrecht accompanied the singers on two selections), and all music was sung without scores.
The highlights were many, but certainly at or near the top were Daniel Elder's beautiful "Ave Maria," with its cascading opening phrases, and "Fly," in Susan LaBarr's arrangement of the Sara Groves song. The opening piece by Sweelinck featured crisp dynamic shifts and a great closing. Lovely harmonies abounded in Paul Hindemith's "Un Cygne," and rapid-fire lyrics, in Eric Whitacre's setting for the e.e. cummings verse, "little man in a hurry," left the audience nearly breathless, although the singers seemed completely at ease with the text.
Particularly demanding was "Cantate Domino" by Basque composer Josu Elberdin, which opens in English, shifts to Basque, and finishes in Latin. This was a jovial piece, high-spirited and quite well executed. Also well done were the Basque songs "Akerra Ikusi Degu," a children's song, and "Biolin Musikaz," a lovely selection that featured mainly women singing over the men humming or "dum-dumming." The West Side Story medley opened with "Tonight" and also presented "I Feel Pretty," "Maria" and "America," with nice choreography added. Thompson Lanning had a fine solo to open "Maria." Later, Martha Hensler began "Fly" with a splendid alto solo, and the ensemble sounded especially good on the dense harmonies.
Crane has said participating in the competition is not about winning but about sharing a love for choral music with singers from other countries and cultures. However, it would be hard to imagine that another choral ensemble in the competition would be much better than the ECU Chamber Singers.
The night before, two other choral groups at the university, the Collegiate Choir and the St. Cecilia Singers, gave a short but well done program, also at Fletcher Recital Hall. The Collegiate Choir, with nearly 30 voices, was directed by John Tyler McDonald, a master's degree student in choral conducting (Crane, who is director of choral activities, sang in the tenor section), while the St. Cecilia Singers, now a women's ensemble of more than 20 voices, was directed by Dr. Jeffrey Ward, associate director of choral activities. Student Kyle Nielsen led the group for one selection.
The Collegiate Choir performed only three selections, but they required a wide range of choral skills. The first piece, "Hard Times Come Again No More," a Stephen Foster song arranged by Mark Keller, was pretty straightforward, relatively speaking, with a fine unison opening and a strong alto section prominent in the second verse. The second piece, "Water," composer J.D. Frizzell's setting of a poem by 9-year-old Hilda Conkling, contains several passages of close harmony and near-dissonant, but still accessible, blends. Some portions are stunningly beautiful, creating an art song of considerable merit. The singers mastered the intricate interplay of words and music, and the eight-part section in the middle of the piece was well executed. Of particular interest was the chattering-babbling-talking section in the women's voices near the end. The choir finished with "Die Beredsamkeit," a rousing student and/or drinking song by Haydn (closing line, in English translation: "Brothers, water makes us dumb"), accompanied nicely by pianist Christopher Pharo.
The St. Cecilia Singers opened with three madrigals, "How Merrily We Live" by Michael East, and "Ah! Cruel Amarillis" and "Away, Thou Shalt Not Love Me" by John Wilbye. The alto section was especially fine in the opening piece, while a few quite mature soprano voices carried the second piece, although with perhaps a bit too much vibrato. Nielsen directed the third madrigal with firm command. "If I Could Stop One Heart From Breaking," an Emily Dickinson verse set to music by Michael Cleveland, was beautiful, and "She Walks in Beauty," a Lord Byron verse with music by David Childs, featured fine accompaniment by oboist Cynthia Wagoner and pianist Alisa Gilliam. The opening of the third verse in canon form was particularly nice.
The program closed with a gorgeous performance of "The Snow," a longer choral piece by Sir Edward Elgar (Op. 26, No. 1), accompanied by violinists Florrie Marshall and Mia Dietrich and Ms. Gilliam. Not only is the song itself simply stunning in its mainly minor-key wistfulness (with lyrics by Elgar's wife), but the singing by the young women also was stunning, an exquisite blend of voices and some intensely emotional shading.
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