Choir impresses with varied program

Saturday night’s Chamber Choir concert provided a glimpse of things to come in the Music Department. Here was an ensemble that clearly enjoyed making music, presenting a variety of sounds and styles with verve and emotion. It’s exciting to see the tangible result of the department’s decision to hire Bradley Wells to direct the choir, especially in only the first year of his tenure. Hopefully, those who resist the similar forthcoming change in the orchestral realm will recognize that well-planned change can lead to great results. But outside of the political ramifications of this concert, it was an extremely enjoyable 90 minutes of music.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb,” a beautiful setting of Christopher Smart’s quirky text praising God and creation. The chorus had a lovely sound, bringing wonderful depth to Britten’s expressive harmonies and responding nicely to Edwin Lawrence’s skillful organ playing. Four students provided a nice variety of vocal timbres in their solos; although their voices may not have been as polished as those of professional singers (with the exception of Richard Giarusso ’00), each brought a new sound to the table, escaping the monotonous vibrato that is so often heard in vocal concerts. Vivien Shotwell ’03 gave a particularly beautiful character to her soprano line, with a tone that was especially well-suited for British music. Although the notes of the choir sounded great, their diction was worse in this piece than in any other. It’s a difficult piece to speak well, but it was particularly notable because the Britten was the only English-language work on the program.

For the next section of the concert, a smaller ensemble stepped forward to sing three works from the 16th century, “Bonjour mon coeur” and “La nuit froide et sombre” by Orlande de Lassus and “O ma belle maitresse” by Nicolas Millot. The Chansons Singers, as Wells dubbed this ensemble, gave gorgeous renditions of these charming songs. And they were indeed songs, performed as if from one voice by this well-practiced ensemble. Thompson Memorial Chapel rang with the crisp harmonies of a too-often neglected period in music history.

The first half came to a close with “Aphorisms,” a new work by Jeremy Faust ’01. Although not as well-publicized as a certain other recent campus premiere, Faust’s piece was an impressive offering from a composer who has made significant strides in the past few years. “Aphorisms” is an ambitious work, as it attempts to draw a great wealth of sounds from the choir, sounds that this choir was unused to producing. As such, the work did not cohere as well as it might have, given more rehearsal time and, importantly, a recording to provide familiarity with the piece to the singers. These come with time, and no composer at Williams has such a benefit. But choirs in particular rely on their ears, and the sounds in Faust’s piece were new to them.

That having been said, the performance was not bad, and the piece came off very well. The passing around of rhythms in the chorus provided a nice drive to the faster sections, and the slow sections were well-crafted and concise, with a few moments that were quite touching. Lawrence, this time on the piano, provided splashes of dissonance and color over the chorus’ textured parts. Faust used single lines of text for each movement, and this decision did not always work, as certain segments seemed too insistent on words we already knew. But all in all, “Aphorisms” was a well-conceived work, and Faust should be praised for his ambition.

The second half saw a return to more traditional fare, as well as the amassing of a small orchestra in front of the singers. It seemed that almost every student involved in classical music had been brought together to play Mendelssohn’s “Verleih uns Frieden gnadiglich” and Bach’s “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” Kantate. I tend to despise Mendelssohn’s music, but this piece was really quite delightful, proving that good playing can overwhelm biases that a reviewer brings to the table. The instrumentalists and the choir blended together to give a performance that combined the elegance of Classicism with the broader sweep of the Romantic period, avoiding the radio-music sound that Mendelssohn can tend to fall into. Giarusso, in his farewell performance as student conductor of the choir, demonstrated yet another of his many talents as he led the large ensemble in a job well done.

I was ready to enjoy the Bach as a final statement to bring the program home, but the Kantate was the biggest disappointment of the evening. While Kenric Taylor ’00 provided a strong solo, the chorus and the orchestra were never quite together, and neither seemed to be fully in control of the musical scope of the piece. Perhaps the other difficult works on the program did not leave enough rehearsal time to adequately prepare the Bach, and this music demands extremely tight playing in order to be effective. Although the ensemble came together well on the excerpt from the Mass in B Minor, the Kantate was too much to handle in an otherwise terrific night of music.

As this choir grows together, and Wells becomes even more comfortable in his role here at Williams, it should continue to mature as an ensemble. I, for one, look forward to seeing just what that will look like.