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Concertgoers flocked to St. Alban's on a breezy, sunny day, skipping the allure of the NFL playoffs transfixing the rest of the country. They came for a program of choral music, performed by the Charlotte Master Chorale Chamber Singers. The sun has been a stranger of late, and it was a welcome break from the gloom and rain of the last few months.
St. Alban's has a square sanctuary with a tall pyramidal roof and ceiling. The seats are nearly in the round, although for this performance the audience was all on one side, with the conductor nearly in the center of the room. This had interesting acoustic consequences; without a nearby back wall and with some distance to any reflecting surface, the sound can lack focus. The reverb was sufficient to make spoken words somewhat indistinct, especially when they were spoken from dead-center of the hall, but the reverb is not as severe as in many other churches, and is well-suited to most choral works. The sanctuary has large windows on two sides, east and west, with the result that the sun in a winter late afternoon was directly in the eyes of some of the singers. Two pulled out large sunglasses to get through the performance. Maybe we can pitch in for some stained glass?
This series of concerts at St. Alban's start off with 40 minutes of music from young musicians. This time, we had a performance from 9-year-old Samantha Coplan, who sang and played violin and piano. When singing and playing violin, she was accompanied by her mother, Lauren Jackson Coplan. The audience was delighted and gave the youngster a warm standing ovation.
After a brief introduction by Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, artistic director of Music at St. Alban's, the concert began with conductor Kenny Potter leading the Chamber Singers in Ralph Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music (1938). The original version of the score is for 16 vocal soloists and orchestra, but given the difficulty in performing that kind of work, it has several versions with reduced forces. This one is for six soloists (Sarah Fink, Jessica Garthe, Emily Shusdock, sopranos; Taylor Rogers, alto; Jordan Taylor, tenor; and John Shusdock, bass), violin (David Brooks), piano (Annie Brooks), and chorus. Those familiar with the piece, a frequent friend on many stages and classical radio stations, are accustomed to the lush strings characteristically associated with Vaughan Williams. That can only be roughly approximated with a piano, which is, for better or worse, a percussion instrument. The violin was certainly appreciated as it added the needed lyricism. The chorus has the capacity for a clear tone and real body to the sound, and that was in evidence here, with some lovely and moving passages. The words are from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1.
After the Serenade, Potter spoke a bit to the audience about the second and final work, The Consolation of Apollo (2014), by Kile Smith. This is scored for chorus, with small parts for bass drum and crotales (played here on orchestral bells). Potter mentioned that people could look up the composition on Smith's website, and quite a few in the audience took out their smart phones to do just that. Those who did found that Smith is not shy about self-promotion and self-praise; he has had a remarkable degree of success with choral music. Usually, the admonition from the stage is for people to turn off their electronic devices; this is the first time I've seen just the opposite. This was an informal, afternoon concert, in a brightly-lit room, which is a different dynamic from a more formal event in a darkened hall, where tiny screens would stand out. Still, the point of a concert is to be present and attentive to a live performance. (Note that a recent study showed that since the advent of smart phones, eye contact during conversation has reduced by 60%.) It's preferred by this critic that any information about a piece that the audience needs should be printed in the program, including lyrics for vocal works.
The Consolation of Apollo was written as a companion piece for David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. That work has a Christmas theme and similar forces of SATB chorus and percussion. Consolation uses two texts, alternating in its seven parts: excerpts from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and transcripts of the 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 during the first orbits of the moon in a manned spacecraft. Smith's style is reasonably accessible for most classical music audiences, with a blend of some triadic harmonies and a great deal of wandering into atonal or atonal-sounding dissonances. The chorus displayed great skill in holding long notes at close intervals and kept accurate pitches despite few clues from the bells at infrequent times. I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few of the singers have perfect pitch.
As is generally the case with postwar music, there were no melodies to latch onto or remember or deal with in the usual ways found in the classical music tradition. If there were, they were hidden in the general atmospherics and not discernible to the trained ear on first hearing. While some of the sections were faster than others and some more involved than others, in general the emphasis was on setting a mood of, well, space. And time. A lot of time. This piece lasts about 35 minutes, which is probably twice too long for the subject matter and style. The upper voices predominated throughout; I'm not sure if that was a function of having the tenors and basses on the back row, with the chorus far in front of the back wall, or if the score tends in that direction. With little instrumental accompaniment and rather monotonous vocal textures, there were few variations in the overall sound. Given no melodies, the aimless quality of the composition wore on the audience's patience, as far as I could tell, despite the extraordinary quality of the rendition. At the conclusion, there was polite, but not prolonged, applause.
All in all, the chorus showed itself to be highly skilled and a delight to watch in action. I look forward to hearing and seeing more of their concerts when possible. Those interested in hearing The Consolation of Apollo with larger forces, on a program with other music, can consider attending a Charlotte Master Chorale concert on Tuesday, February 12 at 7:30 PM at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte NC.