Music Review: Choir of Clare College performs at Vanderbilt University

choirClare College’s youthful choristers were among kindred spirits during their performance at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music last week. The choirs from both institutions consist entirely of undergraduates. During the performance at Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall, one could see Blair’s singers cheering enthusiastically for their counterparts from across the pond.

The Choir of Clare College, part of the University of Cambridge, was in Nashville as part of its tour of the Southern United States, which included stops in Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In Nashville, the choir performed a program called “Great British Pairings,” featuring pairs of settings of the same text by different composers. At least one composer in every pair was a major figure in the English choral tradition.

The program opened with two settings of Psalm 81, “O sing joyfully.” William Byrd, one of the foremost composers of the English Renaissance, created a six-part arrangement filled with complex polyphony. In comparison, Adrian Batten’s setting seemed light and luminous. Both works received expressive performances from the choir, which performed under the expert direction of Graham Ross.

Orlando Gibbons’ treatment of the famous Ascensiontide Psalm 47, “O clap your hands together, O ye people,” couldn’t have been more different from Christopher Tye’s much earlier version. Tye’s setting, sung in Latin, had a more homogenous and homophonic sound, whereas the Gibbons was more rich and resonant. Both arrangements were for double-choir, and the back-and-forth between the singers on opposite sides of the stage was lively and expressive.

Some of the most dramatic moments of the concert resulted from juxtapositions of plainchant with 20th-century settings. The choristers walked in procession around the stage as they intoned the traditional plainchant antiphon “Christus Vincit.” The performance conveyed a delightfully authentic sense of ritual. James MacMillan set the same text as an eight-voice anthem, which filled Ingram Hall with bright voices. Soloist Gabrielle Haigh sang with unfailing sensitivity and nailed the hymn’s high B.

There were some surprises on the program, which was weighted toward Elizabethan and Reformation-era English music. For instance, one hardly expected to encounter the music of the 19th-century Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner at an a cappella English choral concert. The choristers sang his “Ave Maria” with an especially rich, luxurious sound, which contrasted nicely with the lighter, flowing lines of Robert Parsons’ 16th-century setting.

Herbert Howells’ “I heard a voice from heaven,” from his a cappella Requiem, and Heinrich Schütz’s “Sellig sind die Toten” were unexpectedly sweet and tender. They seemed more like celebrations of the living than lamentations for the dead. Ross dedicated those performances to the conductor Christopher Hogwood, who died in Cambridge the same day as the Nashville performance.

Nashvillians are so polite that they’ve been known to give standing ovations at the opening of a wallet. The enthusistic applause that greeted the Choir of Clare College at the end of its performance was well deserved, and the singers repaid the gesture with an encore of Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Bluebird.” It was a beautiful rendition, and the chirping, high A-flats of the sopranos were surely the envy of real bluebirds everywhere.

NOTE: A version of this review will appear in the forthcoming issue of American Record Guide.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.