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Raleigh, North Carolina, is the home of North Carolina State University; "town and gown" interactions are most evident in the sports world, when NCSU teams' performances draw large numbers of spectators to basketball, football, soccer, and many other games. In a sonic gift to the city, the NCSU Department of Music ventured off-campus to draw nearly 2,000 listeners to Raleigh's Roman Catholic Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral for a varied program of choral music which they called "Tenebrae et Lux (Shadows and Light): Music for a Cathedral."
Beginning with the oldest work on the program (composed in 1638), the program included music by well-known composers Brahms, Pergolesi, Howells, Taverner, and Rutter as well as spirituals and works by contemporary composers. Conductor Nathan Leaf used the cathedral's spaces imaginatively as his singers began in the rear gallery and sang in procession to the front of the chancel. Three of the NCSU choral ensembles performed: the 64 mixed-voice State Chorale, the 48-voice women's ensemble Vox Accalia, and the 31-voice men's ensemble Singing Statesmen. With almost no overlap among ensembles, the count was 140 voices in all. It's notable that none of these singers is a music major; NCSU offers only a minor in music. Most of these students sing because they enjoy the benefits of making music in a choral ensemble: true "amateurs," those who love what they are doing. This concert provided them with the opportunity to perform in an acoustical environment for which many of the compositions were envisioned.
Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere," his celebrated setting of Psalm 51, opened the concert. Its 9-part sonorities were beautifully sung, even if the famous "high C" lines did not evoke the original sounds of a treble (boy soprano) voice. The Chorale's voices glided down the nave, over the heads of the cathedral-full audience, which sat in total silence, as if entranced by the compelling power of this famous music.
The women's ensemble, behind the audience from the floor of the nave, followed with Michael McGlynn's arrangement of the traditional Irish melody, "Jerusalem," with soloists Katy Rutrelland and Dasola Olanrewaju. The undulating vocal lines were like a sonic tapestry-in-motion as the reverberant acoustic undergirded the movement of the procession and the melody. Arriving at the front of the nave, the women sang the final stanza of the work.
Abbie Betinis' "Jerusaslem Luminosa" followed, its neo-plainsong/Renaissance two-part texture illustrating the "shadows and light" theme with its text, attributed to Thomas à Kempis:
Alleluia. Jerusalem, city of light, Vision of true peace. Alleluia. All holy, all elegant, Is that which shows itself in thee. Alleluia!
The final shouted syllable of "Alleluia!" brought thunderous applause – well deserved for this fine performance of a work which uses ancient musical building-blocks to create a very contemporary work well worth hearing.
From the rear gallery, the mens' ensemble sang John Rutter's setting of Francis of Assisi's "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace," joined by collaborative pianist Ariadna Nacianceno. Chorus and pianist delivered a fine performance of this short and gentle piece.
The chorus, augmented by the men of the Chorale, then took on one of the most celebrated and challenging works for men's voices, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria." While Biebl was a 20th century composer, this is decidedly Romantic music. Originally ignored in Biebl's home country, Germany, it became well-known in the USA when performed by the Cornell University men's chorus. Now arranged for many different voicings, both vocal and instrumental (where it became the subject of a court case which reached the Supreme Court), its lush harmonies were a perfect choice for the cathedral's warm acoustic. The performance, while not as dynamic as some, was beautifully sung, although the baritones' tone was on the edgy side. The men's Latin diction was impeccable. (There are more recordings of this work on YouTube than I can count, but my favorite is an informal one, in a Virginia bar, when the professional men's choruses Chanticleer and Cantus happened to be touring in the same area and went to the same bar for post-concert refreshments.)
The sopranos and altos returned to the gallery for the Chorale's performance of Brahms' five-voice motet Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz (Op. 29, No. 2) and Herbert Howells' setting of Psalm 42, "Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks." The Chorale delivered the contrapuntal lines of the Brahms motet with clarity and good German diction; it was good to hear this fine performance of a significant work. Together with cathedral organist David Eaton, the singers gave an equally fine rendition of Howells' anthem. While an overly-loud 16' organ pedal voice intruded in the penultimate section, the closing pianissimo lines were movingly sung.
Four works for women's voices continued the evening's focus on shadows and light: the opening choruses of Marie-Claire Saindon's Méditations de la Vierge Marie and Giovanni Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, the "Lux Aeterna" movement of the Missa by Z. Randall Stroope, and the Victor C. Johnson setting of the spiritual "Keep your lamps trimmed and burning." Especially effective were the gentle melodies of Saindon's reflective meditation and the rollicking rhythms of "Keep your lamps."
The concert concluded with the Chorale, from the front of the nave, singing John Tavener's "A Hymn to the Mother of God" and Moses Hogan's setting of the spiritual "This Little Light of Mine." The Chorale handled the dissonances in Taverner's work with ease in this a cappella work which Taverner composed after immersing himself in the Orthodox tradition. While one soprano's voice protruded in the fortissimo passages, Leaf brought out the inner beauty of Taverner's close harmonies. Hogan's spiritual setting, one of many brilliant arrangements for which he became well known, was sung with verve, a fitting close to this well-designed program.
It would have been nice if the program had had notes about the music along with the provided texts and translations because there is so much to know about these composers and their music. That aside, this was an imaginative program, well-conceived for its performance site and well-sung throughout. Congratulations to Dr. Leaf, all the singers, and to the NCSU Music Department for an outstanding event.