BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY WINTER CHOIRFEST, de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Feb. 1
The evening was full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise was that the “BYU School of Music Winter Choirfest” did not open with a BYU choir. The American Fork High School Chamber Singers were the guests who began the concert. I admit that at first I was suspicious. The BYU choirs enjoy a reputation as positive as their tradition is long, and I didn’t think that these high schoolers would have much to offer. But to their credit, they held their own with BYU’s best. They sang a Lithuanian piece, “Kas tie tadi,” which was nothing less than beautiful. The sopranos particularly had an exquisite, pure tone. And from that piece they moved on to elegant slapstick with an a cappella arrangement of Rossini’s Overture to Barber of Seville. If only Chuck Jones were still making Bugs Bunny cartoons – he would have loved to remake “Rabbit of Seville” with this music. The choir had a few intonation issues, but the final product was impressive and so much fun.
Next up was the BYU Women’s Chorus. I have an affinity for the lower register in music (thus my playing the cello), and so I feel guilty when I listen to an all-women’s chorus. I know my bias gets in the way of the performance. But the Women’s Chorus sang two numbers with such striking eloquence that the absence of the tenor and bass was never an issue for me. They performed Vaughan Williams’ “Orpheus with his Lute,” which shows a surprising level of restraint from the composer. It sounds downright baroque. The piece has this beautiful motif that hints at descending trills on a lute, and the singers did such a fantastic job of making those trills crisp and clean. Then they sang a version of “Amazing Grace” that left me totally breathless. It’s Michael Hanawalt’s setting, which begins with expansive, fluttering dissonances. The piece starts off sounding so decidedly modern that I wasn’t sure if it could sustain that forceful modernity while adding the “old timey” tune with which we’re all so familiar. But it was a balancing act which the composition and the performers executed brilliantly. If I may be allowed to wax poetic, the effect was like the rustle of angel wings.
Then the BYU Singers took the stage. By definition, the Singers are BYU’s top choir. All the choirs are good, but the Singers really have the advantage of being a small choir with frequent rehearsals. Because of this, they achieve a unity that would be simply impossible for the other choirs. They blend so well that you can’t tell they’re blending. This unity was most apparent in their performance of “Duo Seraphim,” where they divided themselves into three separate groups, but still sang as one polyphonic voice. It was a compelling trinitarian metaphor that the composer, Francisco Guerrero, would have been proud of. Then the Singers performed Frank Ferko’s setting of Hildegard von Bingen’s text “O Vis Aeternitatis.” A solo cello accompanied the choir, and it complemented the men so well that the two sounds synthesized into an otherworldly outpouring of pure beauty. It was only appropriate for a text written by everyone’s favorite medieval mystic.
I had trouble, however, with the Singers’ last piece. I’ve been trying to think of a way to say this without insulting either the BYU Singers or African-American spirituals. I love them both, but just not together. Whenever a classical choir sings a text like “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” with nigh anal-retentive diction, the final effect is almost embarrassing. The strength of a classical choir lies in its precision and sensitive execution of the craft. But the beauty of spirituals is their sincerity and earthiness. It’s just not the fare of tuxedos and strict elocution. The Singers were spot on, and the composition itself was great, but it was not a happy marriage.
At any rate, Bach was up next, performed brilliantly by the Concert Choir. I love Bach, and the “Alleluia” was a thrill to hear, but I sometimes get the feeling that these baroque choral composers forgot that they were writing for human voices and started accidentally writing ornamentations for a string orchestra. The elasticity required to sing those passages always impresses me. The Concert Choir concluded their segment with BYU’s own Ronald Staheli’s arrangement of “How Can I Keep from Singing.” It was a peaceful and contemplative setting, full of thanksgiving.
The last choir to perform was the BYU Men’s Chorus. One of the nauseating things about the members of the BYU choirs is that they never just sing. Two different members of the Men’s Chorus accompanied two separate numbers, and they both did such a marvelous job on the piano and organ that they ran the risk of outperforming the rest of the choir. There’s a lot of talent in these groups. The Men’s Chorus ended their performance with “El yivneh hagalil,” a standard from their repertoire. If you haven’t heard it before, you should do a quick search online. It really is a gem, and they sang it with such energy that its conclusion struck with electrical force.
Alas, concerts like these always take an immediate toll on my iTunes account.