Music Review: Vanderbilt choirs mark Britten’s 100th birthday with glorious sounds

britten-profileWho would have guessed that the hottest concert this season would be a community choral celebration of Benjamin Britten?

On Tuesday night, West End United Methodist Church was filled to standing room only as the members of four Vanderbilt University choirs gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of Britain’s greatest 20th-century composer. Surely, the capacity crowd’s enthusiasm and excitement must have been contagious, since the 175-plus choristers spent the better part of an hour-and-half singing their collective hearts out.

tucker3The evening began with conductor Tucker Biddlecombe leading the combined forces of the Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir, Blair Chamber Choir, Vanderbilt Community Chorus and Blair Children’s Chorus in Handel’s Coronation Anthem No. 1: “Zadok the Priest.”  There are any number of reasons why Biddlecombe, Vanderbilt’s director of choirs, would open with Handel’s 1727 anthem for the coronation of King George II. Handel, of course, looms large in the history of British vocal music, and his anthem strikes just the right celebratory note to open a concert.

But I figure Biddlecombe picked it because it gave him the chance to show off all of his singers at once, and they were indeed a mighty force. The community and collegiate choirs filled the entire front of the church – from the organ pipes behind the altar to the first pew – while the children’s choir was perched angelically and on high in the back balcony. When this huge force all sang at once, they unleashed a veritable tsunami of melody, a sonic wall of sound that filled every cubic inch of air inside the large church. The singing wasn’t especially nimble, but it was powerful and resplendent. Organist Polly Brecht provided colorful accompaniment in this and most other pieces during the evening.

The rest of the concert was devoted largely to choral music that Britten composed from about 1942-45, which was the same time he was working on his supreme masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes. One of the most unusual performances was of the Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942), which set to music the text of W.H. Auden.

blairchoriThroughout the performance, the Blair Chamber Choir accompanied a small corps of dancers (Jen Jen Lin, Maria Maggipinto, Chelsea Juetten, Ketsia Pierre and Tiffani Weckerly), who moved in elegant counterpoint to the music. Kelvin Amburgey created the appealing choreography. The choir singing was mostly first rate, especially among the sopranos and tenors, though I did want to hear more resonance from the baritones. The soloists – sopranos Leah Hollingshead and Jordan Amann, mezzo-soprano Toby Deaver, tenor William Nichols and baritone DeLesslin Evans George-Warren – all sang with polish and poise.

blair-childrenUnquestionably, the highlight of the entire concert was the performance of the evening’s best-known piece, A Ceremony of Carols (1942) featuring conductor Mary Biddlecombe and the Blair Children’s Chorus. These appealing carols for Christmas, which set to music text in Middle English, are filled with beautiful solos and duets that are accompanied by harp (expertly played by harpists Clara Warford and Amy Thompson). The choir sang all of these carols with immediacy and a pure, translucent tone – I’d be tempted to call these performances angelic if they weren’t filled with so much lovely human emotion. The soloists – altos Graham Jackson and Mariah Rapisarda and sopranos Jessica Schreiber and Rebecca Sullivant—all sang splendidly.

The Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir gave two outstanding performances: Britten’s Jubilate Deo (1961), a sweetly lyrical piece in bright C major; and Rejoice in the Lamb (1943). The latter piece set to music the wildly eccentric verse of 18th-century poet Christopher Smart. Smart had spent time in an asylum, and there are times when his verse seems to have only a tangential relationship to reality – some of the verse is from the perspective of Smart’s cat, and others from the view of a mouse. Blair School of Music musicologist Joy Calico provided insightful commentary during this performance (and throughout the entire concert). The Symphonic Choir, for its part, sang with a beautifully blended sound. The soloists – soprano Emily Neil, mezzo-soprano Morgan Aszman, tenor Luke Ferraguti and baritone Ben Tieslau – all gave worthy performances.

community-chorusThe mature voices of the Vanderbilt Community Chorus under the direction of conductor David Williams added a welcome degree of luminosity in their performance of Britten’s Festival Te Deum (1945). The choristers sang this hymn of praise and thanksgiving with simplicity and sincere emotion. The soloist, soprano Vanessa Jackson, sang with a pure voice, though I wanted to hear more volume from her, and less volume from the annoying watch alarm that went off during the performance. Organist Nicholas Bergin provided able accompaniment.

Tuesday’s concert ended with the music of Britten’s successor, John Rutter, and his The Lord Bless You and Keep You. Once again, the combined choirs joined forces to sing, producing what Biddlecombe described as the sonic equivalent of a “warm batch of cookies” to take with us into the evening. We left with warmed hearts and rejuvenated souls.

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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.