Music of the Americas – Vox Angelica: Sunday, 14th May, 2018

 

St Paul’s Anglican Church, Geelong

One could not imagine a more fitting final concert for the 10TH Annual WINDFIRE FESTIVAL OF MUSIC IN GEELONG’S HISTORIC CHURCHES  than a performance by Geelong’s premier chamber choir, Vox Angelica.  Tom Healey, director and founder of Vox Angelica selected a program of music from the Americas, ranging from the 17th century to the 21st.

Tom Healey, Director, Vox Angelica

Throughout the program the choir showed good blend, faultless diction, and the ability to tackle highly complex counterpoint and luscious modern harmonies with equal skill.  The acoustic in St Paul’s Church is superb for vocal music – allowing for the fullest of texture and the quietest pianissimo.

From the first, it was clear that this was to be an extraordinary concert.  There was much rarely heard music, ranging from three Baroque pieces from Mexico, Peru and South Carolina through the centuries to contemporary music.  At the 17th century, most composers in the Americas were immigrants.

Resuenen los Clarines (May the trumpets sound),  by Manuel de Zumaya, dates from 17th century Mexico.  This antiphonal piece for two four part choirs, was challenging – with a fine interplay of sections between the two choruses.

Recordad Silguerillos (Remember, Little Goldfinches), by Juan de Araujo, a Spanish immigrant to Peru, for two sopranos, descant recorder and organ, was performed by Emily Swanson and Helen Seymour (sopranos), Jan Lavelle (recorder) and Frank De Rosso (organ).  The piece is a love song, with interwoven voice parts.   This was an admirable performance, enhanced by the wonderful acoustic of St Paul’s Church.

The third piece was a setting of Magnificat from Theodore Pachelbel.  Pachelbel, an immigrant to South Carolina, was the son of more famous Johan Pachelbel.  This setting was for double choir.

During the concert, Tom Healey played two contrasting pieces on the organ.  The first, a gentle 18th century Offerterio by Domenico Zipoli, an Italian migrant to Argentina, showed off the organ’s reedy stops with only one sustained one pedal note.  The second work, Toccata (from Suite) by Canadian composer, Thomas Bédard, was spectacular and used the full power of the organ, and showed off Healey’s phenomenal technique.

Lament Over Boston, a re-imagining of Psalm 137 with a new world focus, by William Billings, laments the unrest in the city in the late 18th century, with the approaching revolution against British rule.  In  English, it demonstrated the choir’s excellent diction and blend, and also Billings’ skilled word painting.  A part-song  in a lighter vein followed – 19th century romantic composer Edward MacDowell’s Barcarole.

Two of the USA’s most famous composers of the twentieth century were next – with Aaron Copeland’s At the River for men’s choir and piano, and Randall Thompson’s Come In for women’s choir, piano and flute.  In this setting of a poem by Robert Frost, the flute interludes mimic birdsong.   After a climax from full voiced choir, the music ebbs to an exquisite and moving  pianissimo, before the birdsong dies away to a final  thrush-like chirrup. The flautist in this performance was Brighid Mantelli.

Brighid Mantelli

Argentina’s Astor Piazzola is famous for his tangos.  The final piece before interval was an energetic  setting of Libertango, full of tango rhythms from the lower voices and piano, and finishing with a stunning fortissimo climax.

Twentieth and twenty-first century music from North America comprised the second half of the program.  It included spirituals like My Lord, What a Morning, arranged by HT Burleigh, and sung with a warm a cappella.  The subterranean bass note in the final extended pianissimo chord reverberated hauntingly.

Canada was represented with works by two contemporary female composers .  The first was the beautiful moving In Remembrance for a cappella choir, from Eleanor Daley’s Requiem.  The second work was an exquisite setting of Hear My Prayer (Psalm 103) by Stephanie Martin.

Thomas A Dorsey’s gospel song Precious Lord, begins in a traditional style, before relaxing into a heavy jazz-rock with men singing the tune, and the choir’s women singing in harmony above, with a virtuosic jazz piano accompaniment, played with great flare by the choir’s accompanist, Sonoka Miyake.

The final piece was another spiritual Let the Light Shine on Me, arranged by Moses Hogan.

Congratulations to Vox Angelica and Music at the Basilica, under the musical directorship of Frank De Rosso, for presenting this celebration of beautiful music.

 

 

 

 

 

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An American Portrait: The Geelong Chorale

Sunday May 21st, Wesley Uniting Church, Geelong

Conductor:  Allister Cox,  Accompanist:  Kristine Mellens

An American Portrait, presented by the Geelong Chorale, was more a series of portraits, each focused on a specific area of American music.

The first bracket comprised four Negro Spirituals.  Two, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Deep River were arrangements by Australian Arthur S. Loam, in the 1940s.  The other spirituals are more modern works, composed and arranged by African-Americans.  Soon Ah Will be done-ah wid de Troubles of de World, composed by William L. Dawson (1899-1990) and Ain’t got Time to Die composed in 1956 by Hall Johnson (1888-1970).   Soloist John Stubbings was in fine voice in this piece, which was called by the composer an ‘art song in the style of a spiritual’.

Stephen Foster was the foremost composer of popular songs in 19th century America.  It is therefore not surprising that, for its second ‘portrait’, the Chorale chose three songs by Stephen Foster, I Dream of Jeannie (arranged by the Chorale’s Anne Pilgrim), My Old Kentucky Home (arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw) and Beautiful Dreamer (arranged M. Gardner).  The men of the Chorale shone in their unison singing in this piece.  Foster’s songs were immensely popular in the minstrel shows whose popularity continued well into the twentieth century.  (The performers were usually white people, with blackened faces – performing songs, dancing, comic skits and variety, although there were some all black groups.  Times have changed!)

Popular folk songs comprised the third bracket.  Shenandoah (arr. J. Erb) dates to the early 19th century.  The Riddle Song (arr. A. Warrell)  originates from a 15th century English song, which was brought to the Appalachian Mountains by early settlers.  Aaron Copland, like Benjamin Britten, was an avid collector of folk music.  Two of his folk song arrangements concluded this bracket, the ballad Long Time Ago and minstrel song Ching-A-Ring Chaw.  Kristine Mellens showed herself a most accomplished accompanist in Copland’s arrangements.  She joins an illustrious group as it’s interesting to note that the original solo arrangements of these two songs were first presented by Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano) in 1950.

Art songs followed.  Samuel Barber’s beautiful Sure on this Shining Night was followed by Randall Thompson’s challenging Alleluia commissioned in 1940.  Despite the joyous Alleluia lyrics, the piece is gentle and prayer-like.  Allister Cox elicited the long build-up to forte and the decrescendo was equally satisfying.  There were some lovely pianissimos in the high tenor line.  The Road Home followed, composed for the Dale Warland Singers by Stephen Paulus in 2001.  This work is based on an old American folk song tune.

America is the home of the modern musical, and musical cinema.  The choir let its hair down and sang songs of Gershwin (a medley titled Gershwin in Love (arr. Mac Huff) with beautiful solo work from Helen Seymour and John Stubbings), then Cole Porter’s Night and Day, followed Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz), and the rousing final reprise of the title song from Oklahoma! by Rogers and Hammerstein in the original stage arrangement.

The Geelong Chorale concluded its American Portrait with an arrangement of Battle Hymn of the Republic.  P.J. Wilhowsky’s arrangement featured the piano, in a fanfare-like opening, which was then taken up by the women’s chorus.  There are multiple  key changes as the piece builds in tension verse upon verse, with various ‘special effects’ including a marching chant from the men’s voices.  The verse ‘In the beauty of the lilies…’ was sung by the men in Welsh-style close harmony, before the final climax – ascending choral chords – a very ‘Hollywood’ finish to a most enjoyable concert.

The Geelong Chorale, a well-balanced, medium-sized choir of ten sopranos, ten altos, four tenors and six basses was in very fine voice.  It is good to see some new faces among the line up.

The Geelong Chorale’s next concert is Voices of Our Time: Music of contemporary composers on Sunday, August 27th at 3pm in All Saints Anglican Church, Newtown.