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On Saturday evening, April 8, the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir put together all the elements of music – melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics – in a program focused on Passiontide that brought this music about suffering to the peak of its meaning. Do not be mistaken, though, the program was not morose but was varied, emotionally powerful, and pleasantly satisfying. The concert was dedicated to the memory of a founding member of the choir, Roby Glen Daniels, Jr., who died just last month, leaving an empty space to be filled. The setting was the beautiful contemporary St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Raleigh, and most of the music was contemporary, if not in date, certainly in impact.
Maestro Alfred E. Sturgis chose to open the program with Franz Liszt's seldom-heard Via Crucis, a musical and dramatic setting of the traditional fourteen Stations of the Cross. St. Michael's organist Kevin Kerstetter, at the church's beautiful Möller organ, played a key and masterful role in this interesting piece. There were sections that posed challenging exposed dissonances and counterpoint for the choir and the soloists, all handled superbly. At times, I felt, Liszt was trying too hard to be dramatic. (Perhaps this reflected the influence of his friend and son-in-law Richard Wagner, or his own inventive experimentation?) Overall, however, it was a moving experience for Christians on the cusp of Holy Week. Especially beautiful and effective was the placement of verses of the Stabat Mater. Liszt also included another Latin chant melody, Vexilla Regis, and two German Lutheran chorale tunes.
The second half of the concert consisted of all contemporary works, beginning with Francis Poulenc's Four Motets for a Time of Penitence. This choir of handpicked singers from the larger NCMC demonstrated the power of music on human emotions when all the elements mentioned in the first paragraph above came together with skill and precision. Poulenc's four unaccompanied motets, written in 1938, thirteen years before his Four Motets for Christmas, reflect his deep commitment to his Catholic faith. The warmth and intimacy of these pieces still reaches transcendently into the heart of listeners everywhere. Poulenc lived from 1899 to 1963. The composers of the remaining music are all still living.
The great Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was born in 1933 and has written works in various 20th-century veins throughout the stages of his career. He is probably best known for his seminal St. Luke's Passion, composed in the mid-1960s. The work we heard on this occasion, the Agnus Dei, comes from his neo-Romantic period some ten or more years later. Like many of his choral works, it is characterized by rich and intense harmony and simple but powerful melodic development. At one point, Poulenc arrives at a twenty-note tone cluster sung fortississimo (triple forte). It occurs on the word peccata (sins) and is blindingly jarring. From there, the music melts into a contemplative ending with words from the Requiem mass – "Grant them rest everlasting" – leaving the listener limp emotionally.
The choir next sang a setting of Bach's "Komm süsser Tod" arranged by Nystedt/Eriksson. Program notes by Alfred E. Sturgis explain that "The first time through, each singer chooses his or her own tempo and waits at the end of each phrase for everyone else to arrive. The second time, there are four different tempi, one for each section. The final reading is as written." As has been demonstrated in many different ways, Bach is wonderful, almost no matter what you do to his music.
"Sun Stone," by Scottish composer James McMillan (b.1959), is the final movement of his cantata Cantos Segrados, a setting of texts by Argentinean-born Ariel Dorfman who has been on the faculty at Duke University since 1985. It is an ingenious juxtaposition of words and music, and it is hard to tell what moves you the most. I cannot imagine hearing this piece without tears and tonight was no exception. The incredible poetry tells of a firing-squad executioner touching a prisoner about to be shot and whispering, "Forgive me, compañero." Interwoven with the text of the poem is the Latin segment of the mass: "Et incarnatus...." The piece ends with the words sung again and again and then whispered, "Forgive me, compañero." It is overwhelming!
The program closed with three motets from The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera (b.1946). The first is harmonically intense and rhythmically savage in places. The second is rich in dissonant harmony but more calm and contemplative; and the third employs renaissance-like imitative writing with some very interesting rhythmic interjections. The NCMC Chamber Choir is very much at home with this type of music, and with their confidence and skill, it is hard to beat their blend of sound under the masterful baton of Sturgis.