Holiday Harmony

It’s hard to believe the fall semester is almost over, and this is the last concert review of the season I get to write (but do not despair: I return next February!). Of course, the end of the semester also heralds the inevitable all-nighters required to finish overdue term papers or (for the more ambitious students) getting in some early cramming for finals. Those students who braved the large mounds of snow and P-Con readings last Sunday, the 23, were given quite a study break: the various campus vocal ensembles, led by conductor and Professor of Music James Niblock, presented their year-end concert. For a couple of hours the Chapel resounded to the strains of holiday music, Chinese folk songs and sea shanties. With such an eclectic mix every audience member was guaranteed to enjoy at least part of the concert.

Sunday’s performance began with the Chamber Singers (the smallest and most elite of the groups) performing a number of Christmas and winter-themed songs. Niblock joked it was meant as a practice for when they’re recorded on television later this year (that holiday show will be aired Christmas day on WSKG). While most holiday carols are notoriously simple affairs (even the most tone-deaf revelers tend to join in the chorus of “Jingle Bells” whenever it comes on the radio), the Chamber Singers selected some very intense works. I was especially impressed by the rendition of “Deck the Halls in 7/8;” aside from the novelty of the meter, the Chamber Singers were masterful in executing all the cutoffs and cleanly articulated the text (even the “fa la las”).

Moving in a more traditional direction, the Chamber Singers were equally adept at singing the slower, less ebullient songs. Jeffers’s “Hanukkah Blessings” featured some magnificent blending among the vocal sections, and Lange’s “Esto Les Digo,” although interminably long, was pulled off with equal talent. Finally, I must briefly mention the antiphonal work “While My Sheep” by Jünst and Baker: the four soloists, singing from the stairs that border the stage, provided one of the most interesting moments of the afternoon (made all the better since they were in time and well-balanced with the rest of the choir). In general, despite their small size, the Chamber Singers produced a powerful sound comparable to that of a much larger ensemble (with the added benefit of being more in tune).

As the Chamber Singers filed off the stage, I had the sinking feeling that none of the following music could possibly measure up to this talent. In that belief I was only partially correct; the Women’s Ensemble, which followed the Chamber Singers, exhibited almost equal skill. Unfortunately, that talent was wasted on a couple of utterly bland songs (that choirs feel the need to sing these tepid, mass-produced products of the mid-twentieth century never ceases to amaze me).

It was not until the “Chinese Mountain Songs” by Chen Yi that the Women’s Ensemble was able to show off their abilities; at the beginning of the piece I heard some of the purest musical intervals in my life. And, while I won’t even pretend to be qualified to comment on their pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, the Women’s Ensemble was certainly enthusiastic about the gathering of oats and digging of taro root described in the text!

The final work sung by the women, Baroque composer Baldassare Galuppi’s “Dixit Dominus,” can best be described by saying: there’s a reason you’ve never heard of this guy before! However, despite the second-rate part writing, I couldn’t help but enjoy this music. (It was, after all, from my favorite musical era, and was the only composition of the afternoon that featured instrumentalists.) The Women’s Ensemble enjoyed it as well, as there was an unrestrained energy behind their words. Perhaps they were inspired by the rapid tremolos and violent bowings of the small string ensemble. Then again, who wouldn’t be excited while singing about executing the final judgment, shattering the power of all the kings of the Earth and piling up mounds of corpses.

Following a brief intermission, the Concert Choir took the stage to close out the afternoon. Their musical repertoire, while just as varied as the Women’s Ensemble’s, had the benefit of being written by slightly more talented individuals. Case in point: Aitken’s musical setting of the poem “Flanders Field.” The shifts between polyphony and chant and rapid dynamic shifts (used to convey a sense of overwhelming sorrow) were executed with an aplomb I wouldn’t have thought possible from a choral group. It was, however, Gawthrop’s “Shantey,” a humorous work which balanced the pathos of “Flanders Field,” that had me humming to myself while leaving the concert. In this song about the allure of the sea, appreciated best when lying in a warm bed at home, the Concert Choir reaffirmed their ability to transition among a variety of textures and tempi, sing as one cohesive unit and infuse a believable level of emotion to the music. Then again, I may have enjoyed this shanty because the witty and wry narrator reminded me of myself.

While I expected this choral concert would be an hour of mostly mundane musical selections, and to be hones, there was a fair share of those (I swear I saw some of the basses fall asleep while singing Howells’ “Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks”), there were equal moments of real excitement. And, all throughout the concert the superb talent of the vocalists alternately complemented and rescued the music. In short there was a level of musicianship displayed on Sunday I’ve rarely heard before (especially from student musicians). I eagerly anticipate the performance of these choirs at the Lessons and Carols service, even if they won’t sing any more sea shanties.