Choirlogue: Collaborative Concert

Feb 21 2014:

This past Friday, Lincoln University, a historically black university, and the Haverford College Chamber Singers sang a combined concert. Below are my thoughts:

Seated in the front row of the mezzanine, I have a great view of the choir and the audience below. Many of the Lincoln University choirsters are mingling around, while hot cider is a convener of all shivering attendees who braved the snow and sub-freezing temps for a choral performance.

The first set of the show is performed by the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. They have five songs in a myriad of styles and languages. The first is “Sleep, Fleshly Birth.” This beautiful Renaissance piece was written by Robert Ramsey, an Englishman, for a prince who died before his time. The sentiment and some of the suspensions call up a similarity with Whitacre’s famous “When David Heard (That Absalom his Son was Slain.)” The Singers handled the soft supplications of the song with delicacy and blended well and smoothly, but the forte sections were bruised, especially by a couple of heavy-handed soprano voices who overshadowed the choir. Naturally, such an imbalance will pervade throughout the performance, and while this is a common problem especially for US American select choirs, it is sometimes difficult to address the issue with efficacy and politeness.

The second and third songs in their set are in Spanish, from Mexico and Venezulea respectively. We hear “La Adelita” by Gustavo Martin, and the men, who sang the previous song with a timid tone, come into the music and sing the song with brilliancy and buoyancy. The entire choir comes alive, and perform the notes with alacrity, from the effervescent onomatopoeia to the warm embrace of legato lines. Indeed, we finally see the choir actually getting into the music, and their energy imbues the song with joy. The third song–”Caramba” by Alberto Grau–is a warm and refreshing love song, once again with great suspensions. This along with the Ramsey piece prime the audience well for the Eric Whitacre piece later in the program, giving the entire performance a neat and clean musical frame despite the variety of the pieces performed.

Director Thomas Lloyd’s assessment that “The African American Spiritual is [US] America’s greatest contribution to world music” receives a standing ovation even before the final two pieces of the Chamber Singer’s set begins. Unfortunately, the song that follows this assertion–”I’ve been ‘buked” by Hall Johnson, is lacking energy and sincerity from the Singers. The strong lyrics are deadened by a placid performance, that is technically correct, but lacking in feeling and emotion. On the positive side, the introduction of the song is sweetly sung, and the vocalises are well done.

Abigail Stephenson shines in the penultimate song of the Chamber Singer’s set. Her solo in William Dawson’s “Ain’t Got Time to Die” is moving and warm, with spot on vibrato. (Her vibrant performance is foiled by the woman singing to her right who looks bored with the song.) The choir as a whole almost gets to a point of energy and true performance, but fall short.

On the whole the Chamber Singers sing a diverse selection of songs with superb technical acumen, but they do not allow the music to move them, and so it neither will it move their audience.

Next up is the Lincoln University Chamber Choir. One can immediately tell that this choir has a different culture than the Chamber Singers, even from their entrance on the stage (the tenors and basses offer their hands to Altos and Sopranos in a gentlemanly effort to help the heel-wearing ladies up on the risers.

Like the Chamber Singers, the choir from Lincoln U sings a diverse and technically challenging set. Their first song is “O Magnum Mysterium” by Kevin Membley, which they demonstrate a beautifully straight tone for an (US) American choir, despite that vibrato sneaks in on higher notes. A solid attacca at the culminating climax masterfully offsets the flowing serenity of the rest of the piece. By the end of the piece, this group has shown great balance and pleasing richness to their dynamics. The superb blend of this group, especially in comparison to the home choir, raises questions of culture on cooperative/communal vocal performance: Are thing singers from Lincoln of a church choir background? If so, is that the key to their improved blend and synergy of a choir? One of the challenges of all choirs in the United States is the hyper-individualistic culture that stands against choral singing which is cooperative and a team-centric exercise at its core. (More on this at a later time.)

The second song, “Hold Fast to Dreams” is the best of their set. There are some inaccuracies, noticably a sfz that is only performed by half the choir, but the a cappella section stayed marvelously in tune (aided by the extreme focus of the choir during this section.) This arrangement (by Roland Carter) engages a very interesting, and not often utilized musically, idea of the Second Line. Here, we have the introduction of the spiritual “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” as a Second Line melody. The whole song is wonderfully engaging.

The third song, “Afternoon on a Hill,” shows this Concert Choir’s weakness. Here we have a song that has a lacy, pale yellow mood, but the choir sings it with a velvet, maroon quality. The delicacy of the song is weighed down, and this performance of it misses the airy quality the song would intone. The choir may be more apt to sing it with more gentleness if it were placed earlier in the program, and not after a valve of energy was released with “Hold Fast.”

The next song, however, is the best of their set. Jeffrey Ames’ “In Remembrance,” is beautifully wrought by the choir, and their performance is truly touching and heartfelt.

Their last song, “Great God Almighty” arranged by Stacey V. Gibbs, is energetic and well performed. They choir does hit ff too soon and the climax is flat by their premature crescendo.

On the whole, the Lincoln University Concert Choir performs with exuberance and skill. Their balance and the richness of their dynamics are truly exemplary.

The program is concluded with a triptych of pieces performed by both choirs. The final set opens with Brahms’s “O Schoene Nacht.” This classical piece does not seem to resonate with the singers, and the fifty-some individuals on stage seem to be singing at the same time, rather than together. The blending improves with the next piece, “O Lovely Rose,” by Eric Whitacre. Director Edryn Coleman, in introducing the piece, states that “Eric Whitacre is the Michael Jackson of [this type] of choral music.” The singers do seem to feel this piece a bit more, even while it is certainly a challenge to summon the energy needed for the intensity of any Whitacre piece late in a program. The singers come together, and gel as an ensemble.

The final song of the night is conducted by Thomas Lloyd, and is the widespread favorite of choral singers everywhere: Moses Hogan’s “Elijah Rock.” Lloyd’s interpretation of the song brings it new life in this performance, with interesting staccato “rocks” and great bridge embellishments. Lloyd truly pushes the choirs to their limits, speeding the tempo to a fever pitch as singers struggle to keep up with music they (perhaps) only recently learned.

On the whole, this performance showcases two very technically skilled choirs from very different backgrounds. Equally impressive are the directors who educate and intrepidly expose their students to a vast variety of distinctive musical styles and subjects. While the performance of the undergraduates did have flaws, it is important to mark that they are singers who are still learning. Tonight, however, they did shine and bring wonderful life to many pieces and inspired the audience with their potential.

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