New Zealand Choral Federation
Association of Choral Directors Inaugural Convention, July 2012 presents:
USC Thornton Chamber Singers
Jo-Michael Scheibe (conductor)
ChoEun Lee, Stephen Black, pianists
Brierley Theatre, Wellington College
Thursday, July 12th 2012
After this concert, a pianist friend said to me, at once enthusiastically and (I thought) somewhat resignedly, that “there’s something about the directness of singing that tops everything!” And that was certainly true here, right from the moment at the concert’s beginning when the audience was transfixed by the appearance and solo singing of a beautiful young soprano from the choir by herself on the platform, regaling us with the opening verses of “The Reapers All with Their Sharp Sickles”, a setting of the eighteenth-century American folk-hymn Meditation by Elisha West. The singer was joined by another soloist at the end of the second verse and then by the choir, quietly entering from the aisles and taking up a vocal accompaniment in verse three consisting of cluster harmonies, continuing with verse four and joining in with the last couple of lines with the soloists. The effect was of music gradually spreading through the world, before the first singer again took charge of the vocal line at the end, reminding listeners in the final verse that all shall bring mankind to a day of reckoning with Christ’s Second Coming.
This was how the concert at Wellington College’s Brierley Theatre opened, presented by a choir from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. The USC Thornton Chamber Singers group and its conductor Jo-Michael Scheibe were here to give this keynote performance at the July 2012 New Zealand Choral Federation National Conference in Wellington. It was the first of a series of appearances by the group who are undertaking a brief Australasian tour. They’ve since been “across the ditch”, but are flying back from Australia to perform in Auckland at the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Thursday (July 19th), joining the Auckland University Chamber Choir and Choralation (goodness, what a marvellous word!).
Appropriately, the concert was subtitled “American Voices”, indicating much (though not all) of the content as it did the origins of the performers. Two New Zealand works featured, one by David Hamilton, and the other an arrangement of a song Don’t Dream It’s Over by Tim Finn, and other cross-cultural strands included settings of Scottish folk-songs, and anAfro-American spiritual. So there was enormous variety of repertoire and performance style over the evening’s course, which intensified the interest of an audience already held in thrall by the performances alone.
Every item had its own intensely-wrought character, whose contrasts the group seemed to relish and readily communicate to us. Some of the composer’s names were new to me (presumably known to choral “buffs”, though two were those of current choir members, Jordan Nelson and Nolan Frank). A work by Abbie Betinis, Cedit Hyems, was reminiscent in places of Carl Orff (hardly surprising, considering that part of the setting was of verses from the original Carmina Burana Benedictbeurn) Introduced by a flute solo, the piece brought tightly-worked harmonies at the beginning, which energized into Orff-like rhythms and stimulated engaging physical movement – very syncopated, and dramatically contrasted music. Jordan Nelson’s The Snow I Hated mirrored the text’s “haiku” intensities, tight harmonies, frequent repetitions and magnificently-sculptured chordings (both composition- and performance-wise) – intense “wrong-note” harmonies which conveyed single words such as “away” so vividly.
I loved the evocations of memory stimulated by Dale Warland’s Always Singing, the word “singing” repeated and resonated at the start, as if transporting us trance-like to nostalgic realms, music both of comfort and sadness, the voices’ rich blend reaching into the tonal depths in places, suggesting the roots of human feeling suggested by the composer. And though I can’t really remember when and where I last heard David Hamilton’s Veni, Sancte Spiritus, the music’s beautifully-wrought, deeply underpinned flowering from the beginning, and the frisson of its central cascading episodes straightaway reconnected, carrying the momentums as if on air through the concluding array of amens and alleluias.
Another name known to me was Morten Lauridsen, his Lament for Pasiphae a setting which I didn’t know of Robert Graves’ verses, but relished as one would the company of an old friend. The music powerfully conveys the poet’s anguish of lost love and departed joy, the voices clanging like tocsins, obsessively railing against the “dewless and oppressive cloud” which has blotted out the sun, and imploring what is left of the day’s warmth and light to bring some comfort and resignation. Relief from such angst-ridden sounds was forthcoming with Mack Wilberg’s arrangements of Three Scottish Folk-Songs, the Britten-like “O whistle and I’ll come to ye” canonic-like progressions, underpinned by a lovely four-hand accompaniment, one of the basses from the choir joining Korean pianist ChoEun Lee at the keyboard. The second “My love’s in Germany” outlined a tragic story of a soldier killed in the war and mourned by his sweetheart, the singing a full-blooded lament, the accompaniment haunting; while the third “I’ll aye call in by yon town” whirled us all away on energetic reel-like caperings, voicings and accompaniments enjoying themselves hugely.
Samuel Barber’s dark, Prokofiev-like waltz-song “Under the Willow Tree” from his opera Vanessa was performed by a tenor solo, the emotion ready and heartfelt, the tones full-throated at “Where shall we sleep, my love?”, the piece making a startling foil for Eric Whitacre’s little man in a hurry which followed, almost its antithesis, in fact. Whitacre’s setting of characteristically pithy verses by ee cummings fitted the words like gloves – repetitive, molto perpetuo rhythms and syncopated irruptions, all brought off with wonderful control by the singers – a contrasting, more lyrical section characterizes the “little child” before the piece speeds up with a glissando and dove-tailing syncopations, words and phrases flailing in all directions, the pianist’s turbo-charged energy rocketing the piece to its conclusion.
We next enjoyed a truly revivalist Shenandoah by way of preparing for the choir’s take of Neil Finn’s Don’t Dream It’s Over, stunningly sung and played by Nolan Frank, his “freer” guitarist-vocal style extraordinarily fused with the choir’s concerted accompaniments in a wholly spontaneous-sounding way. Last on the program was the invigorating Ride On King Jesus, an arrangement by Stacy V.Gibbs of a traditional Afro-American spiritual, a tour de force of controlled, energetic singing. In a note Gibbs explained how he wanted the soprano line to exemplify the joy and confidence of faith in “King Jesus” – and some extraordinary stratospheric work from the sopranos towards the end certainly galvanized our sensibilities and uplifted our spirits!
A standing ovation was a “given” in such circumstances, one to which the choir warmly responded with both an encore and a “blessing”, the words of the latter read by the conductor before being sung. It all made for an extraordinarily satisfying and heartening concert of great singing from a wonderful group of musicians.