Choir alumni lend voices to superb reunion concert

On Saturday night the Williams Concert and Chamber Choirs welcomed over 30 choir alumni from the last 10 years back to Thompson Chapel for the first-ever choir reunion. Orchestrated by choir director Brad Wells, the extended forces were well utilized in two works that called for larger-than-normal ensembles: Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium and Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. In between these two large works were four smaller pieces sung by the current Chamber Choir.

Tallis was a composer during the English Renaissance, a predecessor of William Byrd. Spem in alium was written around 1570 and features 40 different voice parts singing in the round. The choir swelled to 80 current and former members for this piece, divided into eight groups of 10 that encircled the audience.

Student conductor Sarah Riskind ’09 conducted from two large scores placed in the aisle of the chapel, rotating herself to address different groups in front, behind and to the sides of her. The piece made great use of the space of the chapel: It began with the group perched on the right side of the stage, then introduced each group one at a time into the texture, starting down the right side of the chapel, passing behind the audience, then coming back up to the stage on the left side.

Much of the piece featured a dense contrapuntal texture with a sprawling mass of differently moving parts, at once overwhelming and sublime. Tallis alternates this thicker texture with antiphonal call and responses from groups on opposite sides of the chapel – quiet, tender moments when most groups drop out and powerful unison passages that seemed to fill the entire space with a single united voice. It was wonderful to watch audience members smiling as music came from unexpected places, an effect more typically experienced in headphones but sadly not in concert halls.

The next four pieces featured the current Chamber Choir and began with a setting of the Gertrude Stein poem “Let her be” by Judd Greenstein ’01. A current doctorate student in composition at Princeton, Greenstein used the highly repetitive Stein poem to write a piece in a sort of minimalist style. Rhythmic patterns on the phrase “let her be,” used in both the poem and the piece with an insistent irony, propelled the music forward, interrupted by sustained chords and quieter moments that swelled into climaxes.

To be Sung on the Water, a piece by Samuel Barber and conducted by Eric Kang ’09, had a more unrestrained, expressive quality in contrast to the rigid modernism of Stein’s poem and the clean setting by Greenstein. It began with low voices intoning “Beautiful, my love” under a sustained soprano line, then switched roles, with the low voices taking the melodic line and the high voices repeating the phrase. Kang, a wonderfully communicative conductor, teased great expression out of the simple lines of text by poet Louise Bogan.

The two pieces by Donald Grantham that followed set in juxtaposition poems by two of the most famous American poets: e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson. Matching the lucidity of the cummings poem, Grantham’s musical setting was loose, harmonically adventurous and constantly shifting, though I found the quiet space it eventually settled into more compelling than the initial fragmented texture. The Dickinson setting, of her poem “This is my letter to the World,” was hushed and delicate, if not particularly memorable.

The final work on the program, Martin’s Mass for a Double Choir, once again called for the extended forces of the Concert Choir and the alumni. A full mass setting written in sections in 1922 and 1926, the piece was never intended to be performed publicly, as Martin considered it too deeply personal. It is a work full of detail and depth, with careful attention paid to setting the familiar words of the Latin mass vividly and dramatically.

The last two sections were particularly effective. The Sanctus began with gentle repeated notes in the lower voices tolling like bells while the higher voices floated above. These separate strands slowly unified into an ecstatic climax on the word “Hosanna,” died away and began the buildup again.

The Agnus Dei unfolded slowly and with a plodding, uncertain character. Ending with a sort of pensive melancholy rather than undemanding celebration felt wholly authentic and true to the sprawling expanse of the piece. Martin’s faith did not seem to come easily, but it is because this affirmation of belief came in the face of struggle and doubt that it gained powerful resonance and meaning.

Though this student and alumni choir did not have much rehearsal time as a group, the work was well-balanced and exquisitely shaped. Melodic lines were beautifully phrased, dynamics were carefully controlled and used for maximum dramatic contrast and complex contrapuntal ideas were clear and comprehensible to the audience. The logistical coordination of this concert was impressive, and Brad Wells deserves tremendous credit for presenting both a joyous reunion for alumni and a musically impressive performance.

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