For the past eleven years, Elon Professor and Burlington church musician Charles Hogan has organized a training course in the Carolinas for girls and adults, under the auspices of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM). This past July 10-16, a sequence of rehearsals, worship services, lessons, classes, seminars, and recitals culminated in a weekend of two large-scale worship services replete with fine music. The focal point of the week was choral singing of 90-some voices from Southeastern churches — but also from as far away as Canada! — under the direction of Dale Adelman, from Beverly Hills, California, and accompanied by Walden Moore, of New Haven, Connecticut. On their final day, the RSCM choir's singers were the guest musicians at Duke Chapel's Sunday morning worship service, while at 5 that afternoon, Christ Church in Raleigh hosted them in a closing Festival Choral Evensong.
Year after year, the intergenerational RSCM choir wondrously manages to produce some of the most exquisite choral singing, even with a changing cast of singers, directors, and accompanists. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that some choristers are as young as ten years old! Their tone, intonation, blend, range of expression, and precise diction are testimony to a true love of labor and demonstrate how young singers will eagerly excel when given the opportunity.
And what a vast opportunity! The music included a Palestrina mass cycle, evening canticles by Harold Friedell, psalm settings by George Thalben-Ball and Craig Phillips, and anthems by Benjamin Britten, Roland Martin, and Percy Whitlock. As exhausting as the repertory list seems, the performances were every bit as refreshing and delightful, always given with reverent regard to their place in worship. Adelman's direction coaxed heart and nuance from all voice parts, and Palestrina's counterpoint in his Missa brevis was made all the more transparent by the director's attention to each part's own rhythmic groupings. Martin's The Altar and Whitlock's "Be Still, My Soul" seemed written for Duke Chapel, with phrases shaped like so many arches both by the singers and by Moore's always-sensitive organ accompaniments. Martin's anthem was inserted last-minute at Evensong for an encore presentation, evidence of how deeply the music touched this year's choir; it also holds a special place for Adelman, for whom it was written while he served as Organist-Choirmaster at Buffalo's St. Paul's Cathedral. Christ Church's brittle acoustics, while far from ideal for most English church music, actually enhanced the angularity and the metrical complexities of Friedell's Magnificat and Britten's Te Deum in C.
As in the past two years, the 2006 course was augmented by an organ institute, complete with recitals, workshops and masterclasses organized by the course's co-director Robert Ridgell of New York City. The guest recitalists/clinicians were Dorothy Papadakos, formerly the Cathedral Organist of New York's St. John the Divine, and John Mitchener of Winston-Salem's NC School of the Arts and Salem College.
Ms. Papadakos' program on July 11 at Edenton Street United Methodist Church, Raleigh, exhibited her trademark flair for presentation and drama and seemed especially geared toward the young choristers who were in attendance (blessings on the organizers!). After a medley of songs from the 1920s and an especially dramatic rendition of Bach's D-minor Toccata, she put the church's large Möller organ through its paces in an improvised accompaniment to a screening of the 1929 re-release of The Phantom of the Opera silent film. What a treat to hear artist and organ collaborate to bring the classic images to life, through a marathon of creativity and dramatic artistry!
John Mitchener's July 14 program was every bit as artistic but relied on more standard organ repertory. His program of Sweelinck, Bach, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Franck, and Alain exploited the resources of the 1998 Casavant organ in Raleigh's Highland United Methodist Church to good advantage. Mitchener's playing was always poetic and quietly confident, even when he and the entire audience were cast in momentary darkness when the sanctuary lights suddenly went out. Mitchener brought a particularly rare eloquence to Franck's Chorale in B minor that made one forget about the sanctuary's lackluster acoustical setting or the organ's overly-exposed pipework.
Additional recitals were offered by past and present staff of the RSCM Carolina Course. Music for trumpet and organ was performed on July 10 at Meredith College's Jones Chapel, featuring Ben Outen on organ and Amy Cherry on trumpet. On July 13, six staff members played in succession at Hillyer Memorial Christian Church in Raleigh, performing organ compositions based on either chorales or chants. Chorister Hillary Hunt provided sung renditions of the chants prior to the performances of the corresponding organ pieces. A particular treat at the second program was Katherine Dienes-Williams' rendering of the Toccata, Fugue, and Hymn on "Ave maris stella" by the late Belgian composer Flor Peeters. Charles Hogan's playing of Tournemire's Improvisation on the "Te Deum" ensured that the evening ended skillfully with plenty of paean and bravura.
That one week could contain such richness in repertory and performance was outdone only by the fact that 90-plus musicians could sustain the stamina necessary to bring off such a feat. Multiple rounds of applause are due for the Carolina Course organizers and participants, most especially for the youngsters who, for six days of their summer, left behind their ordinary lives to assist in bringing us all a glimpse of the beauty of holiness.