Music Review: Vanderbilt Community Chorus, wishing Benjamin Britten and Giuseppe Verdi a happy birthday

community-chorusSome people attending Sunday’s Vanderbilt Community Chorus concert at Ingram Hall were probably expecting a holiday program. They were in for a surprise.

Instead of conducting the anticipated Handel “Hallelujah,” chorus director David Binns Williams presented a short program devoted to the music of Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth and the centennial of Britten. Given that Verdi and Britten were among history’s greatest composers of vocal music, the chorus’ desire to celebrate them was understandable.

Sunday’s concert opened with Britten’s Festival Te Deum. Dating from 1944, Britten wrote this piece to mark the centenary of St. Mark’s Church in Swindon, a town located about 80 miles west of London.  The piece opens with the chorus chanting slowly and gently in unison. As the music evolves, the rhythms become markedly more complex, the tempo more brisk.  A soprano solo near the end of the short, six-minute work adds a pure, angelic quality to the music.

The chorus’ performance was fully satisfying. Williams’ tempos seemed just right – they were relaxed in the opening section and springy in the second. His chorus sang Britten’s bright, modal melodies with considerable color and nuance, and the soprano soloist, Vanessa Jackson, sang with a silvery tone and emotional sweetness. Britten originally composed this piece for four-part chorus and organ. Sunday’s concert substituted a piano for organ, and pianist Jennifer McGuire provided expressive accompaniment.

The bulk of Sunday’s concert was devoted to Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri – four sacred pieces composed during the final years of the composer’s life. Verdi based his opening piece, “Ave Maria,” on a strange hybrid scale featuring major, minor and whole-tone qualities. This unusual mode first appeared in a Milan journal as a harmonization challenge to composers. Verdi took up the challenge and was so pleased with his solution that he later joked that he might earn beatification.

Verdi scored “Ave Maria” and the third piece, “Laudi alla Vergine,” for a cappella chorus, and he arranged his “Stabat Mater” and “Te Deum” for chorus and large orchestra. McGuire’s Steinway took the place of the orchestra on Sunday, and her playing seemed every bit as colorful and dramatic as a big ensemble.

There were many highlights in the Verdi. The chorus sang the “Ave Maria” with warmth and immediacy, and they performed the “Te Deum” with sensitivity and style – soprano Allyson McLoed’s solo was memorable.

My favorite part of the entire performance came in the “Laudi alla Vergine,” when the women of the chorus came down from the platform to sing the final canto from Dante’s Paradiso. Their singing – pure, luminous and deeply felt – had just the right mix of heavenly beauty and human emotion. It was an exquisite performance, and it warmed our souls against the November chill.

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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), ArtNowNashville.com 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.