Choirs celebrate and mourn through music

“Sing Me To Heaven: British Choral Music of Loss, Consolation, and Hope” was the title of the Williams Concert Choir and Chamber Choir’s Friday night concert. The concert, under the direction of Bradley Wells, took place in Thompson Chapel to a standing-room only crowd of attentive listeners.

The program was cleverly structured, beginning with a series of multipart madrigals that ascended in textural density from one voice part to six.

Brian Katz ’03 began the concert in solo, singing Byrd One Brere, a medieval English love song. He seemed slightly uncomfortable at first, taking a moment to settle his intonation, but after this rough embarking sang clearly and sweetly for three choruses.

He was then joined by a small subset of the chamber choir for I Go Before My Darling, a madrigal by Thomas Morley, and Strike it Up, Tabor by Thomas Weelkes. Ben Isecke ’02 took the podium on these works as student conductor.

Although these madrigals were light in character and appropriately presented, the performance could have been more convincing. Isecke’s conducting was accurate and simple but unvarying, and might have conveyed more musical information to the group.

The next work on the program welcomed Wells to the stage to conduct what was the most beautiful work on the program. Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis by John Wilbye featured tender melodic lines and lush harmonies. The group also cleanly executed the next madrigal, Orlando Gibbons’ Ah, Dear Heart.

The final madrigal on the program, Sleep, Fleshly Birth, was also the most challenging, featuring six voices. This work also included the most text painting of the pieces, along with complex harmonies unusual for a 17th century work. Although a few harmonies sounded a little too modern for what we would expect, the piece was cohesive and well-performed.

The Chamber Choir ended its part of the program with Sing Me to Heaven by Daniel Gawthrop, added to the program after the Sept. 11 tragedy. This 20th century work provided some contrast with the English madrigals, but remained in the same folk-music genre. Its simple and beautiful harmonies, while taking color from 20th century practice, fit well stylistically with the 16th and 17th century works.

The Concert Choir then took the stage with Gustav Holst’s setting of the All Saint’s Day prayer, Nunc Dimittis. This work continued in the same English vocal tradition, and although the performance was solid, with an especially forceful opening, I was left still hoping for more variety. The voices of soloists Laura Day ’04 and Karl Hein ’02 were both strong and distinctive.

The penultimate work on the program was Herbert Howell’s Requiem. This 20th century piece, which Howell wrote retrospectively in memorial to his son, never really decided what it was going to be, changing rapidly between several similar but distinct styles.

At one point, it featured nondescript traditional harmonies, and at other times patterns of odd speech-like rhythms. There were some intonation issues in the trio of Meghan Giuliano ’05, Rosemary Kendrick ’05 and Adam Grogg ’04, but these passed quickly, and the trio’s performance paid good attention to detail. Paul LaRosa ’02 and Katz turned in remarkable solo work in the fourth movement, “Psalm 121,” which preceeded the strongest performance of the evening: the dark, intense, and haunting fifth movement, “Requiem aeternam (II).”

Joseph Lucia ’03 sang his solo solidly in the last movement, but could have articulated more. Day, Katie Saxon ’03, and LaRosa each submitted strong solo work in this movement, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save the movement’s bizarre writing, which marked a confusing end to an eclectic Requiem.

The final work on the program was There Will Be Rest by noted American contemporary composer Frank Ticheli. Ticheli’s work always has the same signature elements, including ending chordal sections with unresolved suspended fourths and the overuse of canon. Luckily, the performance of this work was inspired enough to distract from the familiar formula, thereby providing real musicality.

The concert program was clever, but it also seemed monotonous, as it was comprised only of works in the English vocal tradition. While I respect the artistry of the program, and found the comparisons between the works intriguing, the overall effect of the program was lacking in variety. However, aside from these programmatic concerns, the choir presented the kind of high-quality concert we’ve come to expect from this group.