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This concert was a welcome return visit from this British choir, which performed an Advent-centered program at St. Michael's Episcopal Church on December 11, 2017. This latest program, featuring literature appropriate to the Christian liturgical season of Lent, was entitled "The Full Final Sacrifice: A Lenten Sequence."
Turnover is normal in college choirs (albeit not because of many "one and done" singers), but much of this season's edition of the Choir of Clare College group has not changed. They still number twenty-nine voices, well-balanced (ten sopranos, seven altos, five tenors, and seven basses), of whom ten are majoring in music. Their bass section still has a reedy edge on their sound whenever they enter at mezzo-forte volume or above. Perhaps, since this section of the choir has no music majors, fewer of them are likely to have studied voice to remove the rough edges from their forte sounds. That aside, the Choir members continue to excel in their quiet singing; their pianissimo singing was ravishingly beautiful, especially in the closing bars of William Byrd's "Civitas sancti tui" (The holy cities are a wilderness) and Alonso Lobo's "Versa est in luctum" (My harp is turned to mourning).
(Readers, please note that I am omitting composers' years of birth and death; in a program containing seventeen works, this easily-found information tends to interfere with smooth reading.)
The Choir began the concert from the rear of the nave with Ludovico Grossi da Viadana's "Sicut ovis ad occisionem" (Like a lamb he was led to slaughter), then processed to the risers set up in front of the chancel steps as they sung John Sanders' setting of the "Reproaches." This music, in procession, as last time's, worked well in the plainsong-like sections of this Good Friday music but less well in the harmonized sections. Unison melodies work best for processions; when parts are being sung, the audience does not hear the full harmony well because they hear whichever part is being sung by the closest singer walking past them. Of course, in either case, soft soles and heels would avoid the clatter of footsteps on a stone floor.
Arriving in their places on the risers, the Choir sang works by Giovanni Croce, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tallis, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Herbert Howells, and James MacMillan. These are all standard choral repertoire except for the 2009 MacMillan work, a setting of Psalm 51 patterned after the celebrated setting by Gregorio Allegri. MacMillan is a significant composer of our time (his St. Luke Passion was heard in this country for the first time five years ago, on April 13, 2014, at Duke Chapel), interweaving techniques old and new into his totally modern-yet-accessible music. The Miserere's most moving sections were the closing four verses, where MacMillan portrays sacrifices pleasing to God in music alternating moments of plainsong with those of harmony, the whole surrounded by two vocal drones – a rich tapestry of sound masterfully-woven by the Choir and their conductor, Graham Ross. The final chord, with its quietly-colorful major and minor thirds, was perfectly balanced to achieve the composer's desired result.
Following the intermission, we heard the Byrd and Lobo works cited above, more motets by Byrd, a recent work entitled "Ave verum corpus Re-imagined," by Roderick Williams, two anthems by Jonathan Harvey, and a fourteen-minute anthem by Gerald Finzi, "Lo, the full, final sacrifice."
The Williams work, related to the Byrd "Ave verum corpus" which preceded it, is written for three four-voice choirs. It must have taken much rehearsal time, which produced a fine performance of a forgettable work. Dissonance is a very important element in music; indeed, one might make a case that the history of Western music is a history of what is considered to be "dissonant." When dissonance in a choral work is designed for its own sake, however, and does not reflect the text, it is of questionable value. One section conjured up the image of walking past a college dorm room in the springtime, with many windows open, and hearing three different broadcasts coming from three different radio stations in a cacaphony of sound. (Williams himself described his "love of clashing harmonies," but they are ill-used in this hymn to the blessed sacrament for the feast of Corpus Christi.)
Harvey's two works, on the other hand, were contemporary anthems well worth hearing. "I love the Lord," a setting of verses from Psalm 116, was a spatial success, with a quartet and three solo singers stationed behind the audience while the main body of the Choir remained in front. The interplay of the groups, often seemingly in insistent tonal and volume combat with each other, was as exciting to hear as was its satisfying resolution.
Harvey's :Nunc dimittis," the beloved Evensong/Vesper canticle with its text from Luke 2:29-32, received a definitive performance, including the "light-in-motion" procession, the singers walking through the darkened church with their LED score-reading lamps and the organ score vividly played by Eleanor Carter. Ross' program notes best describe this work:
"Harvey's 1978 setting is really like no other, and is an inspired interpretation of ancient text. From its quiet beginnings a solo bass voice slowly and dramatically delivers the Song of Simeon, around which the choir responds with a mysterious backdrop of pitched and unpitched aleatoric phrases. The music builds to the blinding vision of the organ entering at full volume on all twelve pitch classes*: the old man, Simeon, comes face to face with the Messiah in this supreme moment of revelation, before the organ chord begins to dissolve and Simeon's soul gradually leaves his boy as he departs in peace." *(i.e., all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale)
Carter, "the first ever female organ scholar in Clare College's history," also played the concluding anthem by Finzi, a British composer who, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, is far too much neglected in the USA. The performance was an elegant offering of this setting of a text by Richard Crashaw, derived from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Unfortunately, the organ pedal division's bourdon-sounding stops, which, being bass pitches, grow in intensity as they move down the nave, did not blend well with the voices, but intruded upon them. The 32' and 16' flutes (usually called "Bourdons," but sometimes going by other names) are fat and tubby-sounding by the time they pass the middle of the nave.
Congratulations to St. Michael's Episcopal Church and their organist-choirmaster Kevin Kerstetter for bring the Choir of Clare College back to Raleigh. We look forward to another visit!