The Milwaukee Choral Artists’ ennobling singing

By - Apr 10th, 2011 01:42 pm
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The MCA, singing in Evanston in October. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Choral Artists.

At Saturday’s Milwaukee Choral Artists program, soprano Sarah Shestek sang with conviction of “my cat Jeffrey” who “worships in his own way …by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.” Alto Sandra Lash expressed wonderment of a mouse, “a creature of great personal valor,” defending his mate from the cat. Others contributed solo praise to flowers, alphabets and cockney rhymes.

Benjamin Britten chose eccentric poet Christopher Smart as the voice for his festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb. (Complete work here.) The work turns dark as Smart compares his persecution to that of Christ: “I am in twelve hardships, but he who was born of a virgin shall deliver me out of all.” We are reminded that Smart may have been less than sane as he wrote these words while resident in an English asylum.

It is difficult to present this work without it seeming funny or out of place rather than bright, innocent and saturated with wonder at God’s creation. But the Choral Artists found the balance, in a Joy and Inspiration program on April 9. (Of course, this professional women’s chorus prompts joy and inspiration at nearly every concert.)

Jan Santröm’s Sanctus, a modern take on 17th-century polyphony, and Felix Mendelssohn’s fully decorated Laudate Pueri Dominium represented more traditional church music. The chorus demonstrated their mastery of each style.  Two arrangements of American folk hymns suggested the power of less classical sources. Susan Brumfield arranged a camp meeting song, No Time, to feature rich harmonies and intertwining voices. Joan Szyko’s adaptation of the spiritual Peace Like a River seemed over-arranged, as it stepped carefully into a syncopated spiritual then back to traditional choral harmonies, rather than celebrate the roots of the song.

Poets were honored by arrangements of works that celebrated peace, safe harbor, souls at rest and loveliness itself. I preferred the musical readings that intoned the sentiment without remodulating at every phrase. Poet James Agee’s Sure on this Shining Night, set by Samuel Barber, and Robert Harris’s setting of Sara Teasdale’s Life has Loveliness to Sell were particularly lovely.

The chorus premiered Everyone Sang, by young Paul Rudoi, winner of an MCA composition competition. The words from poet Siegfried Sassoon celebrate the end of World War I: “I was filled with such delight – as prisoned birds must find in freedom – winging wildly across the white orchards … out of sight.” The theatrical music swells with excitement to close each stanza, a single voice holds on a moment longer than the rest.

A more complex work, David Conte’s In Praise of Music (with selections from poets Percy Shelley and John Dryden) began simply, but built to a complex eight-part ethereal chorus “floating toward heaven.”

The chorus, led by Sharon Hansen, controlled balance and dynamics precisely throughout the concert. This small, focused chorus placed the notes and the emotional tone just where they ought to be, as they inflected Classic, folk, camp meeting, Celtic and spiritual to highlight the different styles.

The Milwaukee Choral Artists performed in North Shore Presbyterian Church, a relatively small venue. The simple vaulted room neither enhances nor diminishes the sound. I would like to have heard the Britten cantata in a brighter Cathedral-like acoustic and with Britten’s creative use of organ accompaniment. An organ under repair left this role to a piano.

The MCA has announced its 14th season for 2011-12. The details will soon be posted on their website.

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