in: Reviews

May 20, 2014

Temple Singers Weren’t Too Churchy

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Choral audiences can be a different animal than regular patrons of orchestral, chamber, or opera performances. As a choral conductor, I would never subscribe to these stereotypes myself, but as a devil’s advocate I note that instrumental colleagues are often quick to opine: “Choirs are big amateur groups, sometimes with a suspect level of musicianship. The range of timbres and dynamics is too compressed to listen to an evening-length concert. They are too ‘churchy’.”Monday night in Cambridge offered a pleasant rejoinder to these stereotypes. The Temple University Concert Choir, under the direction of Paul Rardin and several graduate student conductors, offered an impressively sung full-length program at St. Peter’s Episcopal in Central Square, Cambridge.

The ensemble of thirty students, both graduate and undergraduate, offered a rich, free sound—rather, a variety of rich sounds, adapting their timbres to suit to particular demands of the ten composers’ works. The slightest discomfort came from the soprano voices, whose sound seemed a bit squished or restrained. This might have been merely a trick of the acoustical environment, which generally showed the men’s voices more favor than the women’s; the ensemble sound was also treated more kindly than the voices of the many skilled soloists. Diction was very fine throughout; how refreshing to hear a choir that lovingly delivers understandable text without fetishizing final consonants.

The ensemble biography cites this choir’s commitment to contemporary American music. Considering that the earliest and best-known work we heard was the Howells Requiem, this is no mere platitude. The concert was divided into titled halves: the first, “Rise Up, My Love,” was a series of multi-movement choral cycles, while the second, “I Heard a Voice from Heaven,” surrounded the Howells with shorter works.

This repertoire met the challenge of supplementing standard choral tone throughout the evening: the audience was treated to whistles, claps, stomps, whispering, aleatoric effects, glissandos, tone chimes, and even the old dinner party trick of running one’s finger’s along the rim of a wine glass (in this case, a whole section of them, filled alas with water). Such effects are no longer particularly new but were executed well by the musicians. Neither were they stunts; this choir earned it with secure musicianship through the very difficult opening selections. No simple warm-up pieces here: Daniel Pinkham’s Wedding Cantata (conducted by graduate student Nathan Lofton with a spacious and elegantly restrained gesture), Libby Larsen’s madrigal cycle Songs of Youth and Pleasure, and two movements of Donald McCullough’s Song of the Shulamite were sung with secure musicianship and notable unity of ensemble.

The choir presented two works by Eriks Esenvalds, one of them a premiere. This was Teasdale Poems, three movements with texts by the eponymous Sara. Physically undulating singers and conductor were fully committed to “their” piece. Teasdale Poems has a lot of textual mystery and tonal sweetness. Esenvalds seems to compose in a well-known recent choral sound that derives from Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre; the ear-catching pan-diatonicism brings immediate popularity, but also requires some distinctiveness from composers who have already said much in this medium. With Northern Lights of 2012, Esenvalds employs the water glasses and tone chimes—in a risky manner, too, since they do not play for several minutes. The choir must hope that their intonation is secure enough to keep them at “stemware pitch.” As Rardin noted, the BSO has commissioned a new work from Esenvalds, which will include the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, for November of this year.

The a cappella Requiem of Herbert Howells is always a joy to hear. Rardin and the Temple choir created uncommon moments of drama, especially in the second movement, “Psalm 23.” Rardin conducts with an uncluttered style that communicates line and energy but stays out of the way of his musicians. He was also affable from the podium and unafraid to draw the audience’s attention to musical details in the upcoming works. He conducted Carmina mei cordis by Abbie Betinis and Blow Ye the Trumpet by Kirke Mechem before turning over the ensemble once again to his graduate students. The choir, which must have been nearing exhaustion, adjusted their tone for the pastoral I will be earth by Gwyneth Walker (Ianthe Martini’s graceful gesture resulted in sensitive phrasing) and the energetic Hall Johnson spiritual Ain’t Got Time to Die (conducted ably by Laurel Wacyk). Rardin returned for the final piece, Feast of the Lord by Richard Smallwood, where the choir, in one last tonal surprise, shifted to a hard-edged gospel sound and concluded the evening with swaying and clapping. In the end, this was the “churchiest” moment of the night, and no one in this audience seemed to mind. The professional musicianship, full commitment, and varied programming made for an outstanding appearance by the Temple University Concert Choir.

Joshua Hawkins Nannestad is a choral conductor for Milford Public Schools, First Parish of Westwood, and Gordon College. He was recently awarded his DMA at Boston University.

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