Chorale preview concert indicates different direction
I have been to a number of Chorale concerts in my time at Colby, and this was by far the most unusual (I mean unusual in a good way). With long-time Chorale Director Paul Machlin on sabbatical, Visiting Faculty Fellow Shannon Chase had some huge shoes to fill. With Professor Machlin, I remember the Chorale singing mostly standard repertoire (Britten, Mozart, Bernstein, Beethoven), African-American spirituals and arrangements of religious songs, all of which were always beautifully executed and profoundly moving experiences. This concert, however, focused on choral music from around the world. It also incorporated some instrumental accompaniment, which was a departure from the usual a cappella renditions I expected (except for the joint Orchestra-Chorale concerts at the end of the year, most pieces the Chorale performs are without instruments).
The night started out with two songs called "Noel" which are from an African musical tradition. For some reason, a portion of the basses and tenors were at the entrance of the chapel and made their way to join the rest of the choir at the stage. Logistically, I imagine singing and scrambling down stairs is hard, but the theatricality certainly added to the energy of the piece. Even better was the addition of the African Drumming Ensemble, led by Faculty member and master drummer Jordan Benissan, which filled out the Chorale rhythmically and added an interesting dimension to the vocal performance. Using the African drumming ensemble was an entirely new and very exciting decision and worked well.
Next, we found ourselves in Scotland, with the song "I'll Ay Call in by Yon Town" a setting of a poem by Robert Burns (of Catcher in the Rye fame). This piece incorporated the faculties of Sarah Chant '11 and Joyce Moulton in a piano duet to accompany the chorale. I found the piece tonally interesting: it is not tonal in the classical sense of the word, but like Bartok's work, it incorporates folk traditions into the idiomatic tonal language. The pianists and the chorale did a great job complementing each other and staying together in a harmonically and rhythmically complex piece.
Staying in the United Kingdom, the next song was called "I Love My Love," a Cornish song. It used a smaller portion of the singers in a chamber chorale. For the most part it was lovely (despite some questionable harmonies) and the four part writing came through beautifully in the Chorale's rendition. The suspensions and their subsequent resolutions were to die for, and the sopranos did very well in their high register. The effect was convincing so it almost does not matter that the notes were not all there.
The next piece was a movement from "Five Hebrew Love Songs" by contemporary American composer Eric Whitacre. While not particularly Jewish--the way Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein is Jewish--Whitacre's piece was beautiful nonetheless. Like Bernstein, Whitacre's use of dissonant intervals in his music is novel and beautiful. Chase navigated the Chorale between the contrasting sections of beautiful slow-moving four part writing and rhythmically and harmonically fast-moving music with multiple meter changes admirably. Also novel was the orchestration that included violin, piano and tambourine. Violinist Tara Brian '10 played beautifully in her instrument's lower register
The last two pieces were religious songs, "Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal" and an African American spiritual "Ride on, King Jesus". Both were well performed and uplifting. The latter piece was very joyous and ended the concert on a high note (literally). A final note on the last piece: the piano playing was integral for its affective goal and I have deep admiration for Sarah Chant, who played superbly!
While not the Chorale performance I am used to, I was very glad I went, and I look forward to hearing the full concert in February with all the kinks worked out. If this preview concert is an indication, the future concert should be fabulous.