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To a near capacity audience in the Thomas Auditorium of Blue Ridge Community College, the Carolina Concert Choir delivered a performance on Saturday appropriate to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The centerpiece was the oratorio Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a work that premiered in 1936 as war clouds gathered again in Europe. Vaughan Williams chose a text that leaned heavily on three poems by Walt Whitman as well as Biblical and liturgical excerpts and a political speech regarding the Crimean War. Vaughan Williams had served as a nurse in World War One. Whitman had been a nurse in the American Civil War. Both had seen death and crippling injuries first hand.
Lawrence Doebler, artistic director of the Carolina Concert Choir, believes in unifying themes when planning his concerts. Unlike celebrations that tend to glorify the heroes of war, this was a commemoration that deplored the havoc and casualties of war. The first set at this concert – three folk songs and an African-American spiritual – provided groundwork for “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
The major distinction between music for choirs and music for instrumental ensembles is that choirs use words as well as musical tones. Judging from the exceptional diction that the chorus displayed, I suspect Doebler is a hard taskmaster in rehearsal. The English words used in the oratorio were delivered with a remarkable clarity by the fifty choristers. Even in the midst of contrapuntal passages in “Reconciliation” and “O Man Greatly Beloved,” I was able to follow the poetry (Whitman and the Bible) constantly without reading the text in the program. That can only have been the result of Doebler’s expert coaching on diction, and many hours of conscientious rehearsal. I suspect individual choristers also spent diligent practice time between rehearsals.
The last review I gave of this choir was headlined “A Rave for the Carolina Concert Choir,” and I could have titled this one “A Rave for the CCC’s Vaughan Williams Oratorio.” The choir gave a sense of total involvement. They assumed that their technical delivery would be flawless; they concentrated on meaning and affect. A former neighbor of mine who sings alto was an example; every time I glanced at her, I saw a face conveying sorrow and loss. Neither the discord composed into the accompaniment of “The Angel of Death” nor the disjointed counterpoint of the sixth and final section interfered with the continuous spinning of the tale of woe. The proficient soloists were mezzo-soprano Wendy Jones and visiting baritone Stephen Wilkins. Passages by these two were organically unified with the chorus in a collaborative endeavor that ended with a quiet three-fold amen.
What do you do after a tour de force like “Dona Nobis Pacem”? Following intermission, two more spirituals preceded Five Mystical Songs, also by Vaughan Williams, simple settings of 17th century sacred poems by George Herbert. Five Mystical Songs was completed by Vaughan Williams in 1911. Perhaps he had a simpler faith before he volunteered (at age 41 in 1914) to spend four years tending the wounded and dying of World War One. Whatever the cause, this set lacked the power of the oratorio, and to me it felt anticlimactic. But what a pleasure it is to concentrate an entire review on the concepts of a thoughtful program, and not have to report on any defects in technique. The Carolina Concert Choir continues to provide the highest quality imaginable of choral performance.