The Milwaukee Choral Artists exit harmoniously
Sharon Hanson and her remarkable women ended their 15-year run of glorious singing Saturday night.
Sharon Hansen and the Milwaukee Choral Artists premiered one last piece, bathed us in one last round of luxurious harmony and were no more. The professional women’s choir were in top for their Grand Finale Saturday, when a crowd packed St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church to hear these remarkable women sing one last time.
Hanson — who will retire from UWM and leave town in the spring — and Marj Fowler, Jill Freese, Paula Garcia, Charmaine LaBelle, Cynthia Matchette and Paula Tillen, who have been with Hansen from the start, programmed the first half. They chose personal favorites from years past and a new selection here and there.
The full choir of 20 or various subsets sang, among other numbers, a primal Romanian folk song, with unison or solo melody curling above a choral pedal tone; a Yoruban traditional song, and gave it the pendulous weight and inflected that hinted at West African style; songs in Latin America folk style by Josep Vila I Casañas; the lushly harmonized “Life Has Loveliness to Sell,” by Robert Harris, who stood for a bow; Joan Szymko’s imaginative “You Are the Music,” an MCA commission back in the day; Patti Drennen’s “We Are the Music Makers,” corny as can be but fit for the occasion; a pair of Schumann art songs, richly harmonized but sung as if with one voice; and David Bridges’ “If You Feel Like Singing,” in which a call-and-response litany becomes a set of ingenious miniature variations.
Some of these pieces are splendid and some so-so, but it almost doesn’t make that much difference. Hansen has honed this group to such an edge that simple V-I cadences take on a special glow. They sing everything so elegantly and with such effortless focus that you just have to listen, whether the material is corny or brilliant.
He gets English declamation to an uncommon degree; the words come through well, even the denser music. We’ve heard all of Gjeilo’s harmony a thousand times — Ralph Vaughan Williams lived in about the same sound world — but he is a young master of that idiom. His superb voice-leading gives every part a wonderfully singable, engaging line, and he intertwines them in ways that allow us to hear all the lines as both distinct lines and as passing chords. He prefers closed harmony, and you could feel the coherence of chord and line, the taut weave of it.
Gjeilo certainly rose to the occasion of the commission. In Desert Sky, Gjeilo endowed convincing organic growth onto four firmly strophic poems by Emily Brontë. He opens “Ah! Why, Because the Dazzling Sun” with an expanding dawn of harmony, which gives impetus to undulating vocal lines that trough and crest over smooth-running figures in piano and strings.
“Will the Day Be Bright or Cloudy?” begins as a simple hymn, but it blooms into increasingly dense counterpoint with Brontë’s ever more flowery language through verses two and three. When she pulls back to simple language in final stanza, Gjielo follows suit, transforming his material into a sweet little pop song that is wholly unexpected but just right.
Of course Hansen and the Milwaukee Choral Artists gave Gjeilo the best performance he is ever likely to get of Desert Sky. The big audience stood and applauded for a very long time. Hansen deflected the applause to her guest, and some of it was his. But most of it was for Hansen, her singers, and 15 years of exquisite music.