Chamber Choir treats WCMA to striking performance of classics

Unlike others who attended the Sunday night Chamber Choir concert, I had never been to any of their performances before.

Chamber Choir
WCMA’s rotunda made a stunning setting for the choir concert.

I walked in with high hopes, expecting to hear nothing less than a beautiful and skilled performance from my fellow Ephs who never cease to amaze me with their various talents. However, no expectations could have really prepared me for the joy of listening to a live performance, especially when the performers are as gifted as our own.

The concert took place in the Williams College Museum of Art rotunda, which is one of the most beautiful spaces on campus. The seats were filled with several students and community members. The audience was greeted by the choir’s director, Brad Wells, who has conducted at Yale, Trinity, University of California-Berkeley and California State University-Chico. A visibly easygoing man, he introduced his singers with obvious pride and affection before providing a brief introduction to the two composers whose ensembles the choir performed a cappella: the French Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), known for his religiously-themed compositions, and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), one of Britain’s most famous composers of classical music in the 20th century. Masters of choral music, they are “both favorites,” Wells said.

The choir performed Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des thémes grégoriens op. 10 (1960), a series of four motets that derive their texts from different aspects of the Church Liturgy, as their first piece. The most moving motet for me was the third, “Tu es Petrus (Thou Art Peter),” a simple three-line verse from the Gospel of Matthew. Despite its short length (it was sung in less than a minute), the singers performed with stunning vocal range and strength.

Their versatility was even more powerfully demonstrated when they sung the works of Benjamin Britten – particularly during their performance of an excerpt from Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942). In what can only be described as a moving tour-de-force, the choral piece, led by assistant conductor Matthew Schuck ’12, highlighted the deep, sonorous voices of the male singers and the piercingly beautiful and invigorating female voices. It was easy to hear why Wells described it as one of the hardest pieces performed by the choir, and yet they mastered it and left the audience in visible awe, leaving more than a few mouths open as the song came to its crescendo.

The concert ended with a series of six choral dances from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Gloriana op. 53 (1954). Written in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the pieces are lively and festive. The last of the six, “Final Dance of Homage,” was described by Wells as his personal favorite of the songs performed at the concert. With its flowing and uplifting rhythm, the song had an almost ethereal quality and was the perfect end to the performance.

After the concert, I spoke to Elaina Pullano ’15 (alto), star of Duruflé’s Motets, who sang the chant melodies for each of the four pieces. A seasoned performer of chamber music, Pullano has been singing choral pieces since middle school. When Schuck joined in our conversation, he did not hesitate to sing her praises. When asked what draws her to the genre, Pullano responded that a large part of it is the chance to make such beautiful music in harmony with her fellow singers, an experience she describes as “exhilarating” every time they perform. After hearing how talented all 13 members of the group were, it was easy to see why that is Pullano’s favorite part of the experience.

Sunday’s concert was the Chamber Choir’s last performance of the year and also the final bow of the choir’s four seniors, Schuck (bass), Marni Jacobs ’12 (alto), John Borden ’12 (tenor) and Sam Mazzarella ’12 (bass). Joining Schuck as student conductor, Mazarella conducted Britten’s The Succession of the Four Sweet Months (1950) while Borden took charge of Britten’s The Evening Primrose (1950). But this wasn’t the last chance to hear these seniors sing: As they are all members of the Concert Choir, also directed by Wells, the seniors’ final performance will take place at Thompson Memorial Chapel on May 4. The Concert Choir will undoubtedly deliver a virtuoso performance, and if it proves as successful as the Chamber Choir’s, it will be an unforgettable one.