For its big choral concert of the year, the Blair School of Music presented a brief program on Tuesday night that featured just four works. Nevertheless, the conservatory’s complement of singers and instrumentalists seemingly performed enough notes to fill a Wagner opera.
Shortly after the Blair Chamber Choir sang Bach’s motet “Praise the Lord, all ye nations” at Ingram Hall, choral director Tucker Biddlecombe tossed out a fascinating factoid. Bach’s motet lasted a mere six minutes. Yet in that time, the vocalists sang no fewer than 3,857 notes. “That’s about 10 notes per second,” said Biddlecombe. Talk about a tongue twister.
Bach’s grandiose double fugue was surely the most complex piece on Tuesday’s program, but it was hardly the most dramatic. Beethoven’s heroic Choral Fantasy was on the bill, as was Leonard Bernstein’s life-affirming Chichester Psalms. Blair’s choral forces – the chamber choir, Vanderbilt Oratorio Orchestra and Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir – gave every piece a worthy performance.
Theatricality was the name of the game, so the performances were not just fun to hear but enjoyable to watch. That was certainly the case with the opener, Heinrich Schütz’s “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” Schütz’s setting of this familiar verse is often referred to as the “Echo Psalm” because of the call-and-response effects in the score.
Biddlecombe positioned the bulk of his Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir on the stage, while a small contingent of singers sat in the back of the hall. As the music became more animated, the singers in the back began to echo the words coming from the stage. The effect added luster to the choir’s resonant sound.
The performance of Bach’s German motet, which came next, was the most technically impressive feat of the evening. Biddlecombe and his singers performed the work’s intricate vocal lines with agility and with a beautifully blended sound. The motet’s extended ending on the word “Alleluia” conveyed a sense of true spiritual ecstasy. A small instrumental ensemble – violinists Audrey Lee and Isabelle Wong, violist Erik Thorstenson, cellist Phillip Kettler and harpsichordist Polly Brecht – provided the singers with solid support.
Biddlecombe noted that Bernstein worked in very different sonic “watercolors” than Bach. That was an understatement. In addition to a large chorus that must sing precipitously difficult verse in Hebrew, Chichester Psalms is scored for a big orchestra complete with five percussionists and four harpists. Not surprisingly, the combined forces of the Vanderbilt Oratorio Orchestra, Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir and Blair Chamber Choir gave a lustrous performance.
Chichester Psalms includes an important part for boy soprano or countertenor. On Tuesday night, that part was sung by alto Nolan Harvel, who sang memorably with sincere emotion and angelic purity. The chorus acquitted itself with distinction, singing Bernstein’s challenging melodies with flair and unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the words. At times, I wanted a little more sound from the vocal soloists – soprano Sarah Heilman, mezzo-soprano Julia DiFiore, tenor Lucas Ferraguti and baritone Benjamin Edquist. They nevertheless captured the essence of Bernstein’s music.
Biddlecombe is now completing his first year as Blair’s director of choral activities, and he’s had a good run. Naturally, he wanted to end on a celebratory note, so it was no surprise that his concert ended with Beethoven’s Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Like the composer’s Choral Symphony, the fantasy is a festive piece, and it received a delightful performance.
Beethoven apparently improvised the fabulous solo piano cadenza that opens the Fantasy. In his performance Tuesday, pianist Brian Woods captured the music’s dual sense of heroism and jubilation. The orchestra, conducted by Thomas Verrier, played with color and precision, and the chorus sang with energy and pure joy. The vocal soloists – sopranos Erin Aurednik and Sarah Heilman, mezzo-soprano Julia DiFiore, tenor Kareem Elsamadicy and Steven Sloan and baritone Matthew Brennan – performed with vitality.
The performance won a standing ovation. It was a fitting tribute both to the performers and to Biddlecombe.