What an absolutely spectacular afternoon of music-making! Somehow, from Monday’s rehearsal to this afternoon’s performance, our singing of Shawn Kirchner’s arrangement of Unclouded Day went from ruddy to rhapsodic. There was a literal wall of sound as we surrounded the audience with close to 230 singers, and the big moment, when everyone is launched into the upper part of their range in a giant, clustered chord, was absolutely hair-raising. The audience’s ovation was very gratifying, indeed.
We then processed back to our seats, eager to hear from our own Bel Canto Youth Chorus and the Emmaus High School Chorale. Both groups acquitted themselves beautifully. The Bel Canto singers were joined by members of the Bach Festival Orchestra for the duet from Bach’s Cantata BWV 93. Their young voices navigated the challenges of Bach’s vigorous counterpoint with aplomb. Likewise, the Emmaus singers offered the Burchard Sitivit Anima Mea with great skill, realizing the composer’s gentle dissonances and lush harmony with lots of panache.
It was then time for another combined selection, this time with the orchestra: Händel’s Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest. Greg channeled the youthful enthusiasm and energy with his trademarked skill (especially since he’s been fighting a bad cold, something that was evident as soon as he began to speak) and large doses of cheerful encouragement. The long orchestral prologue reached a fever pitch as we sang the opening entrance. 230 singers is a is a very large group for Händel, but I think there was a lot of clarity in the otherwise rich choral texture. I’m eager to hear how others felt from the other side of the stage.
We then moved on to a group of select singers from the Bach Choir and four singers from each of the participating choirs, who offered Bach’s Sanctus in D, BWV 238. Having finally mastered all of Bach’s cheerfully thorny counterpoint, this was a pure hoot to sing (it was written for his first Christmas in Leipzig, in 1723, presumably with the intention of making a splash – good heavens it’s hard). I cannot offer an objective account of the piece because I was clutching my folder for dear life and singing my heart out (this is perhaps a smidge melodramatic). There’s a tricky transition from simple to compound meter halfway through, and it seemed like the shift was handled seamlessly. The selected singers from the visiting choirs more than overcame these hurdles, and I hope that this experience gave them a taste fo the rewards of singing the vigorous counterpoint of baroque music!
Then, two more high school choirs. Parkland High School’s Chorale offered a lush rendering of the Mendelssohn For He Shall Give His Angles, from Elijah. It’s tricky to sing this piece a capella, and they maintained excellent intonation throughout. Of particular note was the quality of the boys’ voices – managing a recently-changed voice is daunting for singers of that vintage, and they had had rich color without any of the oversinging and overcompensating that can happen at that age. The Charter Arts Touring Choir then offered Vienna Teng’s compelling Hymn of Axciom, complete with special lighting and some evocative cellphone choreography. Their singing highlighted the often-elusive and undervalued goal of singing with simplicity. That is, no affectation, no extra vibrato, a linear dynamic mind-meld, and a seamless legato. I’d heard Vienna Teng’s original recording of the piece, and a Swedish college choir’s take, and remained agnostic about it until hearing the Charter Arts students shimmering rendition. Bravi tutti!
We concluded with Bach’s arch-ardent plea for peace, the Dona Nobis Pacem from the Mass in B-Minor. Everyone played and sang with abandon, a most fitting end to a moving and hopeful afternoon.
I have a few takeaways: In the hands of our guest conductors, Rita Cortez, Frank Anonia, Joy Hirokawa, and David Macbeth, the future of choral music is bright. I sincerely hope that these young singers will stick with it – singing is a lifelong pleasure and having shared in a such a high-level, cheerful, non-competitive experience, I hope that the participants will have experienced a spark that will ignite a curiosity and desire to continue singing after they graduate. Their energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and it was very much appreciated by my colleagues in The Choir.
Greg Funfgeld did a remarkable job MCing the afternoon, offering verbal program notes, making sure everyone felt welcome and appreciated, and, not least of all, leading the combined selections with authority and grace. He was most-ably assisted through the many logistical challenges by Choir Manager Jane Florenz and Choir jack of all trades Peter Young. The Choir’s administrative staff poured their hearts into marketing the concert, in helping with the logistics, and in liaising with the Zoellner Arts Center to make all of the many, many moving parts work in such synchronicity.
School districts that support strong choral programs demonstrate concern for the whole student. I would have loved to sing in a high school choir like any of the visiting groups from this afternoon. As emphasis continues to channel towards the STEM subjects (I’ve always preferred STEAM), it becomes more and more challenging to maintain programs of quality. The value of music and the arts are incontestable, but many school district administrations seem blithely unaware of that. Kudos to Parkland and Emmaus for keeping the faith, and to Charter Arts for making it the central focus of their mission, and to Bel Canto for providing extracurricular opportunities for enrichment and cultivation of special talent.
Finally, I think that what happened today was important. The Bach Choir takes its commitment to educational outreach extremely seriously, and in celebrating the work of some of our area’s finest student musical organizations, and offering opportunities for the entirety of the choirs to participate in such a festive event, minus the burdens of extra auditions or hurdles to jump, was an especially wonderful thing. Sure, many of today’s singers doubtless participated in district, regional, and state choruses, but I think it’s an exceptionally wonderful thing to come together to discover anew the pleasure of singing in community. Much camaraderie and abundant, unbridled joy suffused the afternoon, and it was surely a day that we will all remember.