Friday, May 11, 2007

Greenwich High School Combined Select Choirs

Quite a mouthful, to be sure. But, dear reader, you should have heard what came out of those mouths last Tuesday evening at the "Fish Church" in Stamford. Patrick Taylor assembled the best of the best of GHS's singers (87 in all) and paired them with a professional orchestra of 35 players in a history-making "first" for a musical performance in our area, aptly entitled "American Choral Masterpieces".

Patrick introduced the evening's program by saying that the idea of combining the Chamber Singers, the Madrigals, and the Witchmen had been "gestating" for several years. He further wanted to give them the experience of singing with a large professional orchestra; his hope is to do this again in the future on an every-other-year basis. He then read a letter written to him by the composer of the first piece, Morten Lauridsen, saying how pleased he was that the GHS singers would be performing his "Lux Aeterna", which he called "a meditation on light."

The work was begun in 1993, and completed in 1997 as Lauridsen's mother was dying. In the program notes he wrote himself, he describes the piece as "an intimate work of quiet serenity centered around a universal symbol of hope, reassurance, goodness and illumination...." Using themes and techniques from medieval and Renaissance music (when was the last time you heard the mixolydian mode, dear reader?), and Latin texts he assembled himself that each contained a reference to light, Lauridsen composed a work of great richness and complexity that somehow nonetheless tends to sound deceptively simple and melodic.

Patrick and his singers and players may well have performed the definitive rendition of this work to date. Each phrase of the opening "Introitus" was beautifully sculpted, the musical equivalent of shafts of light shining through the medieval stained glass of Chartres or Canterbury. The "In te, Domine, speravi" followed seamlessly, light rising through darkness: "Exortum est in tenebris lumen rectis" - or, to use the English translation so well-known in the setting by Felix Mendelssohn, "Through darkness riseth light to the righteous."

The centerpiece of the work, its core, if you will, is the unaccompanied motet "O Nata Lux". The a cappella singing was lush and rich and impeccably phrased - "nata lux de lumine" - light born of light. Your scribe could have listened to this part all night.

But the energetic "Veni, Sancte Spiritus" inexorably followed, bouncing along in much the same way that the third part of Bach's great "St. Anne" fugue portrays the Holy Spirit in organ music. The final movement, a combination of the "Agnus Dei" and the "Lux Aeterna", featured frequent a cappella sections as earlier themes returned and the meditative mood was restored. "Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine...requiem aeternum dona lux perpetua luceat eis...Alleluia...Amen." The work ended quietly, but within a second or two everyone was on their feet applauding the performers. Many shouts of "bravo" could be heard from the audience. Clearly there were some musically knowledgeable listeners present.

The second half of the program was Randall Thompson's "Frostiana", a cycle of seven "Country Songs" drawn from the poems of Robert Frost. This work, on which Thompson and Frost collaborated, was written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, where it was first performed in 1959. The first song, "The Road Not Taken", was lambent and almost hymn-like in its quality. Just before the final stanza Thompson throws in a dramatic modulation, which led your scribe to expect some great musicological insight to follow; but instead the composer lapses back into the home key from which he has never strayed far. Like Frost himself, Thompson is content with the path he has chosen.

The next song, "The Pasture", was sung by the male voices only. One can hear the old New England farmer speaking as he invites his listener to join him in the ordinary but beautiful events of life, such as raking leaves or fetching a new-born calf: "You come too." The women reciprocated in "Come In", as the flute portrayed a bird at the edge of the wood, inviting the poet into the dark of the evening trees..."to the dark and lament." The poet resists: "But no, I was out for stars; I would not come in."

Then the men and women sang together in the humorous dialogue of "The Telephone", as two young lovers communicate telepathically. Thompson's marking, "allegretto scherzoso", says it all. The fun continues in "A Girl's Garden", sung of course by the women, in which the planter of "an ideal one-girl farm" becomes, in her own mind, a woman of wisdom who in later years will say, "'It's as when I was a farmer--'" as she shares her hard-won advice with others, while being careful never to "sin by telling the tale to the same person twice."

The men then sang the archetypal Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". The mood is set by the harp and melancholy strings, as the vocal line conveys the minor-key tristesse of a medieval carol reminiscent of "Greensleeves". Halfway through the xylophone imitates the restless horse shaking his harness bells, trying to call his wool-gathering owner back to reality, and reminding him that they both have "miles to go before [they] sleep."

The final piece, "Choose Something Like a Star", combined both men's and women's voices in a glowing, mystical, quasi-religious ode. A reference to Keats within the poem reinforces the odic form of a human admirer drawing wisdom and knowledge from an inanimate object: for Keats the Grecian urn, and for Frost a "star (the fairest one in sight)". "Say something to us we can learn," says the poet: "Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade, Use language we can understand...." And so for Frost, as for others before and after him, the star becomes a symbol of stability and transcendence, something "To stay our minds on," that "asks of us a certain height." Patrick had shared with us earlier the story of how Frost had stood up at the end of the first performance and shouted, "Sing that again!" - and so they did. However, on this particular evening there seemed no way to improve on perfection, and so we in the audience merely clapped and roared our approval, and allowed Patrick and the singers to escape into the cool outside air.

The "Fish Church" was a wonderful venue for this special concert, although the lighting was too dim for your scribe's drugstore camera. He had invited a professional photographer to join him, but she, alas, was unable to make it. So there's only one pic to share with you (click to enlarge):

Here we have Patrick's score for the Lux Aeterna, as seen at the intermission. His baton is nestled above, enjoying a rare moment of tranquillity; once Patrick picks it up, it has miles to go, as it were, before it gets to rest again.

To give credits where due, Patrick singled out Joanne Bouknight, whose program cover illustration showed shafts of light streaming through tall trees (thus uniting the two parts of the program); Arlene Zimmer, who handled the myriad details of tickets and doubtless thousands of other vital but unsung (oops...bad pun alert) backstage matters; and James Westerfield, Minister of Music at the "Fish Church", who helped enormously with setting everything up. Go team!

Between 400-500 people came to this wonderful concert. The majority were parents and siblings and classmates of the singers, but there were also members of the Board of Ed and music lovers in general (such as your scribe). Parking was problematic, as most of the singers had come early, one to a car, and taken the majority of the adjacent spaces (ever hear of car-pooling, guys?), but everyone seemed to cope. The evening started out warm, and it was warmer yet inside the church; the professionalism of the singers was evident in how still they stood under the hot spotlights during the portions of the program when they weren't singing. Your scribe wished that the woman next to him who kept fanning herself with her program all evening would take the hint from their composure, but she didn't. Oh, well, life isn't perfect, even though the music pretty much was.

In passing, let it be said that it's too bad that there is no venue in Greenwich that might have accomodated this concert. What does it say about our Town, dear reader, that we can produce such an outstanding concert, and yet have to go out of town to stage it? Well, everyone knows the answer: give GHS the auditorium it should have had 37 years ago when the new high school was first built. So many of our local facilities are state-of-the-art; why are we skimping on our young people? And particularly when they are constantly proving that they themselves are state-of-the-art? It makes no sense.

So if anyone has an extra ten million or so lying around, or has a few friends who can pull together such a sum, he/she/they can not only guarantee themselves immortality in bricks and mortar, but the undying gratitude of their fellow townspeople as well. With all the money in this Town, you'd think there would be a line of eager would-be donors vying for the honor of this unique gift spread the word, dear reader, and mayhap you yourself can play a role in helping to bring such a possibility to pass.


Blogger ERiCA said...

Each theme of the opening "Introitus" was beautifully sculpted, the musical equivalent of shafts of light shining through the medieval stained glass of Chartres or Canterbury.

Wow, this sounds AWESOME. Man do I wish I could've been there!

May 11, 2007 1:57 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

And man, do I wich I could have dinner with you and Diana tonight! Have a great time, and don't talk about wedding planning the whole time!

May 11, 2007 2:20 PM  
Blogger ERiCA said...


If only you were in Tampa, you could join us! =)

May 11, 2007 2:28 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Ah, Erica, that's the story of my life..."if only...." ;-)

May 12, 2007 1:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home