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After altogether too much rain for far too long, the clouds parted, and under a glorious Carolina blue sky, a crowd gathered to celebrate forty years of fine music-making by Piedmont Chamber Singers. This was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem. There appears to be a large number of Presbyterians in these parts, as this church was big enough for the first five or ten minutes after my arrival for me to join quite a number of other concert-goers in search of which building to enter. After prowling about various possibilities, we finally found the proper sanctuary in time for the festivities. Artistic director Jayson Snipes conducted most of the music, with exceptions noted below; at those times, he joined the tenors. Piano and organ duties were filled by Norris Norwood. In the second half of the program, first an oboist, then a string quintet, with chimes and finally a trumpet joined in.
It was a fitting beginning for the concert to open with "Cantata Domino" by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink. This was the first work on the first concert of the chorus back in 1977, and it was conducted this afternoon by one of the founders of the group, Don Armitage. It was also the only music on this concert dating from before the 20th century, and one of three with a religious text.
There followed "The Music of Stillness" by Elaine Hagenberg, with text by Sara Teasdale. Hagenberg, born in 1979, is a graduate of Duke University, now living in Des Moines, Iowa. Teasdale was a commercially and critically successful poet from the early 20th century (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1918), who sadly took her own life in 1933. This was for piano and chorus.
"The Turtle Dove" was composed by the sturdy Margaret Sandresky, who at age 97 was unable to attend this performance as she was at another engagement where her works were being presented. Good for her! The text was from a shape-note hymnal from 1835, "Tokens of the Latter Days." This was set for organ and chorus. Sandresky's style is very conventional and as a result somewhat predictable, but pleasing.
"Psalm 23" was set by Chris Heckman, born 1985, who did double duty by conducting as well. It is a big challenge to write music over a text used so many hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the centuries, but Heckman did a credible job, even though he walks through the valley of the shadow of dead composers.
After that bit of serious business, we had two light works. The first was sung by the women; "Dear John, Dear John (Punctuated by Love?)," a jazzy fun little reading of a letter of a type no one wants to get in the mail. That was answered by "I Wished to be Single Again," arranged by John Ricketts.
After intermission, we were treated to "Three Songs from The Harvest of a Quiet Eye" by Rick Sowash, born 1950, to a text by Odell Shepard. Sowash is quite the eccentric composer, having trained at a music school he refuses to name despite his degree earned there, having hated the place so much. (I can sympathize; that was the era, still in force some places, where the avant-garde was compulsory and entirely whacko.) This work for chorus and piano was not too bad, if not memorable.
Composer Sally Ann Morris, born 1952, conducted her own "Learn from All the Songs of Earth," with text by Thomas H. Troeger. This premiere performance was joined by the audience for two verses of the hymn tune that formed the basis for the work. The chorus was accompanied by piano and oboe. Morris gave a short talk to introduce her piece. She has specialized in writing hymns. The melody was simple to sing, but quite formulaic and predicable; the art of coming up with something that a congregation can feel comfortable singing on sight, that is novel enough to sustain interest, using common-practice harmony, is a daunting task. The crowd enjoyed taking part, but this was not an out-of-the-ordinary score.
Another living composer, Ryan Murphy, wrote "A Lullaby" as a commission for the North Carolina 9-10 All-State Choir. The text, by Eugene Field, is one of the many eulogies for a dead child written in the mid to late 19th century. (Fans of Mark Twain might remember his satirical take on the genre in Huckleberry Finn, with the poems and paintings of Emmeline Grangerford, mocking popular poet Julia A. Moore. After reading "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd.," one can never approach such poetry in the same way again.) Sadly, this piece had its first performance several weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the Piedmont Chamber Singers had just started rehearsing it when news came of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy. Given the political realities of our time, and the power of the gun lobby, there doesn't seem to be any time for performing such a memorial piece far removed from an act of gun violence against young people.
Dr. Edwin Wilson, Professor Emeritus of English at Wake Forest University, read the text of "Bredon Hill," a poem by A. E. Housman. This was set to music by Daniel Gawthrop on commission from the Piedmont Chamber Singers for this celebration. The poem is rather enigmatic, with a tragic bent.
To conclude, the chorus was joined by most of the surviving original charter singers from the 1977-78 season, plus the strings, organ, and trumpet, for the "Hallelujah Chorus" of Handel.
Sally Gant, President of the Board of Directors for the chorus, summed it up best;
"Thank you, my friends, for the voices in the wilderness that have brought so much beauty, solace, and joy to our community. May we continue to dream, and may these voices continue to sing for many years to come!"