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One can easily become spoiled after hearing the sustained choral excellence of the East Carolina University Chamber Singers, but there are other collegiate choral ensembles out there that provide audiences with outstanding listening experiences as well. The Furman Singers, a chorus of more than 80 undergraduate students at Furman University in the "other" Greenville (South Carolina), is one such group, and they brought their considerable talent and musical skills to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in mid-March.
The Furman ensemble travels at least annually, including to overseas destinations, and the local program was part of a swing through North and South Carolina cities that also offered concerts in Greensboro and Asheville. Under the direction of Dr. Hugh Ferguson Floyd, the group presented a program that leaned toward more contemporary composition, drawing on work by composers not everyone has heard of – including a student who is a member of the ensemble. The lengthy concert also included organ pieces played by Charles Tompkins of the Furman music faculty.
The high points of the concert were many, from "Abendlied" by Rheinberger, conducted by student Corey Hart, and the familiar "Ave Verum Corpus" by William Byrd to Mack Wilberg's setting for the 19th century hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing." Two other memorable moments were "Earth Song," with words and music by Frank Ticheli, and "Flower of Beauty" (1960), John Clements' setting for a verse by Sydney Bell. The harmonies in both pieces were simply gorgeous, with the former built on frequent suspensions of uncanny beauty, while the latter was composed in a more traditional folk ballad style.
Among the more contemporary pieces were "Lucis Creator Optime," by Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis, which employed frequent choral suspensions and chant-like sections; and the energetic "Double, Double Toil and Trouble" by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a quick-tempo piece drawn from Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by Ben Keiper, a student from this Greenville. The audience also heard the second-ever performance of "Qui," a piece by student Holt McCarley set to a poem by Francesco Petrarca. The madrigal, sung in Italian, is quite accessible, despite its complex construction, with staggered entrances and overlapping lines.
The program included lighter moments, too, which added to the audience's enjoyment. Included were four popular pieces, two sung by a young women's quartet known as the Honeybees and two sung by a young men's quartet known as the Mosquitoes. Hannah Cox provided a lovely alto lead for Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?" and Jodi Lea added a deeply resonant bass line in "Sh-Boom Sh-Boom ("Life Could Be a Dream")," the doo-wop standard. The eight singers combined on a fifth song, a lively version of Stephen Foster's "Heigh Nellie Ho Nellie," complete with theatrical gestures and expressions. And these were not throwaways or time-killers, as the students exhibited their considerable musical talent on the popular pieces just as they did on the larger ensemble selections.
Most of the selections were sung a cappella, but the singers gave a particularly fine reading of Ralph Vaughan Williams' well-known "O Clap Your Hands" with organ accompaniment from Dr. Tompkins. Mack Wilberg's setting of "Come, Thou Fount" also has organ accompaniment, as does a stirring version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which traditionally serves as the penultimate piece in a Furman Singers concert. Tompkins opened the program with an exciting rendition of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G, S.541, and also included, among other pieces, a full-bodied reading of Joseph Jongen's Toccata and Wilbur Held's setting of "Simple Gifts."
One interesting aspect of the Furman ensemble is that fully one-fourth of the singers are majoring in something not related to music – from neuroscience to business administration to history – and many of the singers have double majors, with the second subject not related to music. Nevertheless, they produce a seamless choral sound that reflects both a love of music and a commitment to maintaining the highest standards of choral performance. The singers' diction and timing were excellent, and their dynamic range was well suited to the St. Paul's space, with singing neither too quiet in the softest passages nor too harshly overpowering in the forte sections. All four voice parts were strong, with special praise offered to the sopranos, whose sound was quite lovely throughout.