Westminster Choir Delivers ‘Turning of a Day’ Performance

It ain’t for nothing that Westminster Choir College is reputed to have one of the finest choral programs in the United States. This fact was amply demonstrated in yesterday’s concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.
    Under the capable direction of Dr. Joe Miller, the choir presented a range of music that, as Dr. Miller noted, “revolves around the turning of a day.” The “Latin sandwich,” as he put it, was filled with one German and five English pieces—all of which were performed with great determination and vigor.
    As a conductor Dr. Miller is both nuanced and controlled. Of course, it helps that he is working with the cream of the crop: young people with supple voices that can more or less do whatever is asked of them. And in the course of the 75-minute program, much was asked and much was delivered.
    The first work, Lux surgut aurea, (“See the golden sun arise”) by the Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos, began with chant-like melodies that set the stage for the remainder of the piece, which was tonal and largely homophonic, with long, sustained harmonies that sounded effortless.
    The single German work, Johannes Brahms’ Abendständchen, Op. 42 No. 1, (Evening Serenade) continued the theme of moving throughout the day. Dr. Miller understands 19th-century performance practice in that he performed this Romantic work without vibrato—anathema to many modern conductors. but frequently described in contemporaneous writings.
    “Yes, it’s beautiful” from The Constellation of Apollo by Kile Smith, recounts the conversation between the three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 as it photographed the Earth from outer space for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968.
    For Windham, L.M. by Daniel Read—an important early American classical composer—half of the choir came to the middle of the room. The style and timbre of singing abruptly shifted from the warm, well-blended sound of the earlier pieces to the exceedingly bright and somewhat nasal tone associated with Shakers and music from The Sacred Harp. My one criticism of this and the following work, Zion, C.M., arranged by the American composer John T. Hocutt, was that one of the tenors’ voice was rather too prominent—though to be fair he was standing directly in front of me.
    The next work arranged by Tom Malone, Yonder Come Day, took us from the Neoclassicism of the cathedral to a summer evening camp meeting held in a tent. The African-American spiritual featured two outstanding alto soloists and the energy of the work successfully captured the raw emotion associated with such gatherings; however, the hand clapping was at times overly enthusiastic and had the unhappy effect of drowning out the text—an error easily corrected.
    Paul Crabtree’s “Death and Resurrection” from The Valley of Delight is primarily a dialogue between the men and women of the choir; there was one section where Miller dropped his hands and the choir just kept going—all the while maintaining its perfect ensemble.
    Laudibus in Sanctis (“Praise the Holiest” from Psalm 150) called upon the singers to explore not only the extremes of their dynamic palette but also of their tessituras. The basses produced clear, articulated low notes while the sopranos sang the high pitches with grace and a sense of ease that belies how difficult such notes really are.
    Three encores followed and the concert was finished with a rousing rendition of Great Day—a fitting conclusion since, as far as choral singing is concerned, it really was a great day.

Charleston, SC Post and Courier, May 30, 2017
Celebration Concert a stunning showcase of talent

The Celebration Concert Tuesday at the Gaillard Center was precisely that: a celebration of Spoleto and music of every genre and from every historical period and nationality. From the Italian Baroque: Vivaldi to German Classicism: Mozart to late Romantic opera: Puccini to 20th-century: Leonard Bernstein and other Americans.
    German conductor Evan Rogister led the evening’s orchestral works and displayed a command of the ensemble that was both subtle and expansive. His gestures range from the smallest hand movements to the full blown dance-like that bring to visual life the aural imaginings of the music. Like Bernstein, and based on drawings of his conducting, Franz Liszt, Rogister used his entire body to bring forth persuasive interpretations of the music and its emotional content.
    Bookended by selections from Bernstein’s Candide, the 90-minute program included the L’estro armanico, Op. 3 no. 11 by Antonio Vivaldi. The orchestra was pared down and, refreshingly, seated according to the Baroque plan—that is, second violins on the right. The work featured chamber artists more frequently seen at the Dock Street Theater and was a smashing success. Geoff Nuttall, who simultaneously played solo first violin and led the ensemble in this concerto grosso was outstanding; his partners in the concertino—Livia Sohn, violin; Pedja Muzijevic, harpsichord; and Christopher Constanzal, cello, formed an excellent foil to the ripeno (large ensemble). Constanza in particular displayed a deft facility in what was a demanding part.
    The tone of the concert changed when a jazz ensemble, comprised of orchestra players, came onstage to perform I’m thru with love by Joseph “Fud’ Livingston (great uncle of Mayor John Tecklenberg);. Quiana Parker sang beautifully this ballad originally performed by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Her phrasing was eloquent and the timbre of her voice was just right for the melancholy lyrics. She was superbly accompanied by the ensemble.
    Edward Thornton Jenkins’ Charlestonia followed, performed by the full orchestra. Jenkins was an African-American who studied at the Royal College of Music in London. This nod to his hometown was premiered in London in 1917 and sounds very American; it foreshadows the music of George Gershwin, in particular An American in Paris. It turned out to be the sleeper of the program—unknown but well-received.
    Puccini’s “La tragenda" (The Spectre) from Le Villi was appropriately energetic and had the string players sawing away at their instruments. But it was “Vogliatemi bene” (Love Me Please) from Madama Butterfly that stole the show. This tragic duet was brilliantly sung by Natalia Pavlova, soprano and Jamez McCorkle, tenor. Far and away the best singers of the night, their high notes were full with a sense of ease that allowed the audience to simply bask in the breathtaking sound. Their acting was superb and the timbre of their voices when combined into parallel octaves created an effect that clearly moved the audience, which gave them a rousing ovation.
    Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story was the audience favorite, and rightly so. This demanding 20-minute work brought out the best of the orchestra, whether the remarkable percussion section or the brilliant brass. The performance was festive and alive and, well, it danced. It was replete with finger snapping, cello twirling and shouted words and was magnificent.
    But the undisputed star of the evening was the Spoleto Orchestra itself. It handled the different styles of music with great aplomb—whether the pure tones of Vivaldi or the rich sound of Bernstein—the orchestra was simply stunning. We should count ourselves fortunate to have such a fantastic ensemble available to us—even if it is only for two weeks out of the year.

Charleston, SC Post and Courier, June 1, 2017
Review: Mozart paired with Vaughan Williams results in uneven performance

Although at first glance a program of music by the 18th-century W.A. Mozart and the 20th-century Ralph Vaughan Williams might seem incongruous, the pairing worked well in a concert of choral and orchestral music Tuesday night at the Gaillard Center.
   The first half of the program was the finer, with the Westminster Choir in its usual outstanding form. “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” by Vaughan Williams was sung with great care. The work, a juxtaposition of Psalm 96 with the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” was beautiful—even if the orchestra was a bit heavy at times and drowned out the choir.
   “Serenade to Music” is one of Vaughan William’s finest pieces. It is a free-form fantasy that was a compositional breakthrough for him: freeing him from the usual constraints of instrumental forms. There are ten soloists who sing a few lines each; the Westminster students held their own with their older, professional counterparts and the work was perfectly lovely.    Mozart, lacking a patron and a deadline for his lofty project to compose the “Great Mass in C minor,” K. 427, wrote it piecemeal between other ventures during the years 1728–83. Several large portions of the “Credo” and the entire “Agnus Dei” were never to reach completion. It was first performed in Salzburg in 1783. His future wife Constanze sang the “Et incarnatus est” at the premiere.
   Regrettably, the “Great Mass in C-minor” left much to be desired. I was surprised—and disappointed—to hear the orchestra play with continuous vibrato, which is most definitely not part of the 18th-century style. And even though there are no pictures of how Mozart’s orchestras were seated, it’s a safe bet that they weren’t placed according to the modern configuration.
   In most countries, Latin is pronounced with an Italianate accent—except for the German speaking world, which pronounces Latin as if it were German; there’s no reason to think the same wasn’t true in Mozart’s day. But the chorus sang the Mass with the typical Italianate pronunciation. Some of these criticisms may strike the reader as overly fussy, but a festival like Spoleto, with an international stature, surely ought to present concerts with historically informed performances that strive to recreate a sound that is as close as possible to what the composer expected to hear.
   The CSO Chorus, augmented by the Westminster Choir, made a valiant effort towards what is a difficult choral piece. While the sopranos had trouble reaching the high notes, which were almost uniformly under pitch, the tenor section was robust and made an excellent showing.
   Happily, the soloists were without exception outstanding. The two sopranos: Sherezade Pantaki and Clara Rottsolk overcame the totally different timbres of their voices to blend quite well on the duet in the “Domine Deus.” Each had excellent breath control for the exceedingly long phrases and both were quite agile in the runs and ornaments. Jamez McCorkle sang well but not quite as good as the Celebration Concert last week. And bass André Courville displayed his excellent instrument, with clear, resonant low notes and fast, delineated passage work. Pity we didn’t hear more from him during the evening.

Charleston Post and Courier, June 8, 2017
©2017 David Friddle   |   vCard