Choirs soothe in emotional requiem

Requiems generally do not draw the kind of buoyant, expectant crowd that filled the pews of Thompson Memorial Chapel last Saturday night. Simultaneously an expression of loss and acceptance, the singing of a requiem (traditionally performed at funerals) is as solemn an occasion as there is, so it was a curious title for the Williams College Concert and Chamber Choirs’ fall concert. As the choir progressed onto the risers, they seemed to feel the weight of their music. But Brad Wells, director of choir/vocal activities, had not brought his audience to the beautiful chapel to mourn. By removing the songs from their typically somber occasions, Wells and his choirs were able to draw out the music’s peculiar beauty.

The concert began with the Chamber Choir singing Joseph Rheinberger’s “Kyrie.” Despite very simple lyrics, the song became melodically complex very quickly, with one voice part strengthening its sound until another part arrived to crescendo smoothly past it. This made a nice contrast with Josquin Desprez’s “Gloria” which followed it. Much more structurally complex, but striking a balance between playful flourishes and chant-based melodic solidity, “Gloria” relied on the basses to propel the choir through the song, with other parts artfully emphasizing parts of the foundational chant or providing creative embellishments.

Although Wells had directed both these pieces with evident pleasure, he nevertheless stepped aside for Matt Schuck ’12, who conducted “The Miracle.” The first of two pieces by Ned Rorem, “The Miracle” moved quickly under Schuck’s energetic direction from quiet wonder to astonishment at love’s power, culminating in a final crescendo that left the audience wanting more. Luckily, more was provided by Rorem’s next piece, “Tears,” which was unconducted. The choir, required to be even more aware of each other in the absence of a conductor, worked in unison to sooth away the listener’s sadness, introducing for the first time the thought of sleep and the peace that comes with it.

Wells returned to direct “Love,” by Rodney Sharman, a testament to love’s power to create harmony from discord. With little countermelody, this piece really showcased the choir’s mastery of dynamics and phrasing as the choir replicated love’s feat, drawing from initial dissonance an ultimate harmony that faded only slowly from the chapel.

After applause, the Concert Choir took the stage. Instead of the requiem, they started with “Christus factus est.” The Concert Choir’s sound filled the space in an entirely new way, and it was immediately apparent that the intimacy with which the Chamber Choir performed would be replaced by daunting vocal power.

This power was led by student conductor Dan Kohane ’12, who skillfully guided his choir through the Estonian song “Onnis on inimene” by Cyrillus Kreek. Displaying a softer side, choir members smoothly articulated the folk-inspired, lilting Alleluias of the song as they encouraged their listeners (in Estonian) to “serve the Lord without fear.”

Then finally, the choir performed Herbert Howells’s “Requiem.” The concert program informed its reader that “Requiem” was written after the death of Howells’s only son and helped him to achieve some measure of “release and consolation.” The song began with soloists Rachel Patel ’12, Marni Jacobs ’12 and Kerry Goettlich ’14 singing Psalm 23, an expression of trust in God’s mercy and kindness. The choir then joined them and sang “Requiem aeternam,” which begged eternal light and rest for the dead. Moving slowly and evocatively through this passionate appeal on behalf of the dead, the choir’s sound grew, and the audience realized, perhaps for the first time, that the black concert dress of the singers would not be out of place at a funeral. Then Steve Im ’14 and David Moon ’15 began Psalm 121, which invoked a belief in God’s protection before the choir returned again to the “Requiem aeternam.” This time, however, the choir was able to find peace, and the song ended on a subdued but not a dark note.

For its final song, the choir performed Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep,” soothing the audience with a serene melody that burst into excitement before slowly becoming a lullaby with which to send a contented audience off to bed. Like toddlers after a particularly beautiful bedtime story, audience members got up, stretched and headed for their respective rooms, hoping that the next concert on Dec. 3) would be just as satisfying.

caleb baer/contributing photographer Brad Wells, director of choir/vocal activities, led the Williams Concert and Chamber Choirs in their mid-semester performance in Thompson Memorial Chapel on Saturday night.