Chamber Choir sings with grace, precision

The Williams Chamber Choir concert Saturday night was advertised as “Quiet Intensity: Elegant Music for Choir and Instruments,” which gets my vote for the “silliest concert title of the year” award. If people avoided the concert because they expected to hear music from a Pure Moods CD, they would have in fact missed a highly enjoyable, technically impressive and at times deeply moving performance.

Thomson Chapel, which was filled nearly to capacity, was appropriate for the two religious works on the program, and the space is resonant acoustically. However, due to space constraints, the choir was placed far away from the audience, in an alcove that swallowed up their sound, creating persistent balance problems between the choir and the accompanying small orchestra that consisted almost entirely of hired professionals.

Thomson chapel was especially appropriate for Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, the first work on the program; I cannot remember a previous concert when the long lists of war casualties inscribed on the walls of the chapel actually added to the meaning of the performance rather than making it seem vaguely inappropriate.

The Chamber Choir, under the direction of E. Wayne Abercrombie, performed this beautiful work with both grace and precision. Although there were occasional lapses in intonation and blend (as in the opening of In paradisum), these were more than balanced by such passages as the opening of the Offertoire, when the choir sounded smooth, controlled and expressive. Throughout, the choir demonstrated a marked improvement from last semester’s Chapin Hall concert.

The one thing lacking from the choir Saturday was power. Although the choir’s sound was almost always beautiful, the big climaxes in the Sanctus and Libera Me, for example, never really blossomed. The choir seemed to be holding back in ways that could not be attributed solely to the chapel’s acoustics.

Requiem featured two soloists. Soprano Guilane Senecal, a senior at Smith College, sang the Pie Jesu with what was essentially a very attractive voice, but she employed a wide vibrato and tended to slide between notes, which I found inappropriate for the movements simple, prayerful plea. In addition to her vocal affectations, however, Senecal seemed somewhat disengaged, neither praying nor pleading, but simply singing. This was in striking contrast to baritone Richard Giarusso’s ’00 direct and dignified performance. His solo in the Libera me, especially, was passionate without being theatrical, with nuance and shaping that never seemed contrived or unnatural.

Giarusso then returned to the stage to conduct Mozart’s Ave verum Corpus. This very short work, placed between two rather long pieces, seemed like padding for the program. Even so, it was sung wonderfully, the choir carefully following Giarussos subtleties in tempo.

The performance of this piece was offered in memory of Robert Shaw, who, as Abercrombie explained in lengthy introductory comments, single-handedly changed the nature of choral singing in this country during his long life. However, Abercrombie’s request that the audience hold their applause as a tribute Shaw was misunderstood or ignored by a small portion of the audience, causing embarrassment for all involved.

The final work on the program was John Corigliano’s setting of the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill,” a poignant meditation on childhood. Without the benefit of the text provided in the program, the audience would barely have been able to make out the words of the poem, something for which the blame, I think, must be shared by both the choir and the acoustics of the chapel.

On the other hand, the clarity and the accuracy of the music were almost flawless. The works harmonic language ranges from almost tonal to almost atonal, and the choir dealt with both ends of this spectrum with ease. Professional mezzo-soprano Kayla Werlin contributed a technically secure and emotionally rich solo.

The Chamber Choir concert was Abercrombie’s last performance as director of the choral program at Williams. Several members of the audience expressed surprise that this was not acknowledged during the concert itself. Since it had been converted into an all-student group, the Chamber Choir was essentially a new ensemble at the beginning of the academic year.

Saturday, they impressively demonstrated how much they have improved over the course of the year under Abercrombies leadership. Since only two of the group’s thirty-three members were acknowledged during the concert as graduating seniors, we can look forward to even more improvements under the new full-time choral director next year.