Saturday, November 9, 2013

Northminster Presybterian Church brings choral bloom to CTS's Sweeney Chapel

The resonant acoustics of Sweeney Chapel suited the program.
Amid so much joyous music, it may sound a little perverse to say I was particularly excited to hear William Schuman's "Carols of Death" in a concert Friday night by Northminster Presbyterian Church's Chancel Choir and Chamber Ensemble.

The environment of Sweeney Chapel at Christian Theological Seminary was ideal for most of the pieces John Wright programmed for his two choirs, and especially suitable for the well-knit lines and piercing harmonies of the Schuman work.

The a cappella setting of poetry by Walt Whitman, imbued with the poet's mystical embrace of death, is oddly life-affirming in Schuman's vivid setting.  The harmonies posed for well-trained choral voices are assertive, keenly placed and given a momentum that adds up to a thrilling experience. It was a good test of the 11-voice Chamber Ensemble, which was fit for the challenge.

Whitman's boldness of statement, even when expressing apprehension at the mystery of death that lies before all of us, is both underlined and made to seem hard-won by Schuman's music.  The first carol, "The Last Invocation," rises with effort to the line, "Strong is your hold, O Love," which was sung gloriously by the choir.  I was impressed by the singers' pitch security and the fullness of their phrasing, which made especially moving the gentle conclusion of the third carol: "In the day, in the night, to all, to each,/Sooner or later, delicate death."

The Schuman work was significantly placed third following two poised examples of Renaissance polyphony, Hieronymus Praetorius'  "O vos omnes" and Palestrina's "Sicut cervus." Both illustrated in advance the skill needed to place the piquant harmonies of the Schuman accurately. The Renaissance masters similarly challenged choristers to produce a consistently pure tone and linked phrases, and they came through handsomely.

Performed without intermission, the program had a rewarding degree of variety. It moved to modern settings of ancient texts to illustrate the ongoing applicability of sacred words to latter-day sensibilities. And the use of hymns in newer arrangements led naturally to a final section of folk songs (two selections from the cornucopia of Robert Shaw and Alice Parker arrangements) and spirituals.

There was plenty of buoyancy in Moses Hogan's settings of "The Battle of Jericho" and "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," with call-and-response sections used climactically and, in the former, "bent" notes judiciously applied to mimic the "tumbling down" of Jericho's walls. Another Hogan arrangement, "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me," showcased a gleaming soprano solo. A more flamboyant spiritual style, that of the influential choral director William Dawson, presented an apt contrast in "Ezekiel Saw de Wheel," complete with the echoic whirring of the wheels "way up in the middle of the air."

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is used to filling big spaces with straightforward music. Director Mack Wilberg's eloquent "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" had a colorful accompaniment, with Marko Petricic at the piano and obbligato by two flutes. Petricic's organ skills were brought into play accompanying Louis Vierne's "Kyrie eleison" and Frank Boles' "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending," both compositions of fervor and perhaps too much spectacle for the space they nearly overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, such works illustrated well the program's breadth and the choirs'  flexibility. It was a pleasure to hear again a modern "Ave Maria" (by the German composer Franz Biebl) that is best-known as sung by the San Francisco vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The Northminster men worked wonders with the piece; indeed, they were off their game in the concert only once, as off-pitch singing in the second stanza marred the Chamber Ensemble's performance of the Shaw-Parker "His Voice as the Sound."