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Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Best of the Northwest" Concert Lights Up the Night in Spite of the Unexpected -- a review

As rain fell through dark skies on the night of March 10, I sat in the sanctuary of  Mason United Methodist Church in Tacoma’s Proctor District and imagined myself in the glow of the rising sun. That was the uplifting quality of the “Best of the Northwest” concert I had come to hear. It featured the Northwest Repertory Singers and their two guest choirs—University Chorale and University of Puget Sound's Dorian Singers. Neither the weather nor a piano pedal malfunction would dampen the mood. In fact, spontaneity and surprises characterized the evening, with the unexpected effect of enhancing its intimacy.

University Chorale from Pacific Lutheran University     photo provided by NWRS

UniversityChorale performed first. From the moment Dr. Brian Galante stepped up to conduct his choir he showed a charismatic presence. The group began without accompaniment on “Jauchzet dem Herrn” by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, followed by Claudio Monteverdi’s “Cantate Domino,” so full of exuberance.

Then the accompanist, Okasana Eskokina, sat down at the piano to join them for “from love is the every only god,” a three-part presentation of poems by e.e.cummings set to music by J.A.C. Redford. Immediately, she swept us away with notes that rippled through the room like water over pebbles in a stream, and both piano and choir built up the drama and tension before a somber ending. But the talented Eskokina had some tension of her own to deal with. The piano’s damper pedal had been stuck in the down position throughout.

This problem made it impossible for the choir to perform the next piece on their program, Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Op. 22 from “Vier Notturnos.” Eskokina left the stage to the sound of heartfelt applause. Undaunted, Galante made the decision to substitute “Give Me Jesus”—touching with its simple sincerity. They followed it with “The Word Was God” by Rosephanye Powell. This piece captivated me with syncopated rhythm and intense repetition as the male voices repeatedly throbbed out the words “In the beginning was the word and the word was God.” Then the female voices came weaving in, the two seeming to urge each other on to a powerful conclusion.

When it ended, the crowd responded with vigor. But the gracious Galante turned the attention on his accompanist, now seated off to the side, and audience and choir alike applauded her valiant perseverance during the piano’s failure. I look forward to another chance to hear her play. In spite of the piano, this choir impressed.

Galante shared these thoughts with me later: "In rehearsal, we talk a great deal of the collaborative nature of choral singing--that we participate in an art form that creates something far greater than any one of us could produce alone. It was an honor for us to take that a step further and collaborate with two other fine choirs during the concert on Saturday night. These collaborations remind us not only to cherish the moments of profound beauty created during a concert, but also to celebrate a lifelong passion for music and choral singing."
The show must go on

While Dr Paul Schultz, artistic director of Northwest Repertory Singers, spoke to the audience, some of the male choir members went to work moving the invalid piano off the stage and rolling up another that happened to be in the room. By this time, we were all in it together, eager for whatever might happen as long as the singing we craved continued.
The Dorian Singers from University of Puget Sound     photo provided by NWRS
Under the direction of their dynamic conductor, Dr. Anne Lyman—with accompaniment by Lucas Perry—the all-female Dorian Singers launched their program beautifully with “Tota pulchra es” by Maurice Duruflé. Next was a traditional Korean folk song called “Nodle Kangbyon,” arranged by Wallace Hornady. It began with the gentleness of spring, then swelled with emotion and transported me to a pastoral landscape with blossoming trees.
Adding another surprise to the evening, Lyman presented a piece not on the program—“AFRICA” by the 18th century American composer William Billings. She had arranged it herself for women’s voices, and her ladies sang a cappella with a clean, clear sound. Next came “Buttterfly” by August Read Thomas, invoking images of flight through a sense of fluttering, moments of dissonance, pauses, and tumbling and cascading notes, some hanging in the air until they finally settled to rest.

“The Singing Place” by Joan Szymko made me think of falling rain as piano chords progressed behind voices that hummed and echoed. It ended with a lovely piano run. Foot stomping and vocal trills introduced “Norwegian Triology,” arranged by Margaret King, followed by moments of haunting beauty in a minor key before a more vigorous ending. I thought of fading light in the land of the midnight sun. The Dorian Singers added drama to Giuseppe Verdi’s “Witches Chorus” with their facial expressions and body language, while singing a cappella, for a fun conclusion to the program.

Lyman has this to say about the experience: "I speak for both myself and my singers when I say that we were very grateful to Paul for the invitation of perform with his outstanding Northwest Repertory Singers. He has allowed us not only the opportunity to give our program a test run before the performance at the American Choral Director's Convention, but to be able to share our music with the wider Tacoma community. This was an especially meaningtul performance for me to see my students peform in front of their PLU peers. They thrive in both the process and the product that comes from participating in choral opportunities such as this one, and—even in the midst of midterms, brought their absolute best to the evening! I hope we are able to do it again."
Northwest Repertory Singers performed with authority

All three choirs excelled at their art, but the more mature voices of the host choir, Northwest Repertory Singers led by Artistic Director Paul Schultz, moved me most profoundly from the first note on Ola Gjello’s version of “Tota pulchra es,” not only because of the quality of the singing and the beauty of the piece, but also the dynamics. The soft voices of the women eased into it, and then the men joined them, with the rich blend of voices causing it to swell in volume and emotion before fading softly again, ending on a long, drawn-out “Maria.”  The entire piece carried depth, color, and drama. Schultz’s conducting—as well as the choir’s rapt attention—impressed me, and obviously others as well. Not so much as a breath could be heard from the audience.

Northwest Repertory Singers                          photo provided by NWRS
“Under the Willow Tree” from the opera “Vanessa,” featuring Tom Walworth, baritone, felt lighthearted but not too sweet. After a beautiful introduction by accompanist Majorie Skreen—who did a fabulous job throughout the program—it portrayed the courtship of two birds, set to music by Samuel Barber. Picture swallows swirling and diving, overwhelmed by avian passion. I especially loved the movement back and forth from minor to major, the repeated refrains, the overall rhythmic patterns, and the solo piano alternating with the voices,   

Schultz featured Ted Fahy, bass, and Ross Aker, tenor, and only the men of NWRS on the rousing “Vive L’Amour, arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. “Love live love; Long live life” they sang with gusto and delicious harmonies. I could imagine the clink of glasses in the pub. Not to be outdone, the women of NWRS followed this with a surprising “Song of Perfect Propriety,” Dorothy Parker’s words set to music by Carol Barnett. The lyrics told of female fantasies of life as pirates, returning to reality with the words, “But I am writing little songs, as little ladies will.” It began with the piano’s growls and swaggers and contained just enough dissonance to feel edgy. The women got into it in a big way, stomping their feet and trying to look a mean as pirates.

NWRS ended their individual program with “Battle of Jericho” arranged by Moses Hogan. Schultz had known him personally and remembers Hogan with great admiration and fondness. Syncopated rhythm, repetition, and texture created excitement and tension, the women’s voices becoming almost shrill as it built to a powerful finish.

But the best was yet to come

No matter what else was being performed, I would have come to this concert just to hear the Danish American composer Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on This Shining Night.” Lauridsen once told Schultz, after a previous performance of his work, “You and your choir have raised my music to a new level.” That level was surely maintained or surpassed when the combined choirs, at this concert, treated the audience to an unforgettable experience. The tears I had held back all evening filled my eyes.

The lyrics of this piece, from JamesAgee’s 1934 poem “Description of Elysium,” when set to music by Lauridsen seemed sacred, so sacred in fact, that when it ended, Schultz, continued to hold his arms in a raised position with his back to the audience for at least 30 seconds, before he lowered them and turned around. During that time, no one in room even stirred.

Then people began to applaud. And the applause grew louder. And we all rose to our feet in a standing ovation.


“This has truly been a ‘shining night,’” Schultz told me after the concert. “Tacoma should be very proud.” He spoke of the two “truly skilled” conductor teachers from University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University and added, “It absolutely thrills me.”

Later, he had this to say: To collaborate with two outstanding university choirs was very special for members of NWRS. It brought back memories for most of our people who sang in college choirs, experiencing tours, and the lifetime friendships that happen. Several of the married couples in NWRS met while singing with the Adelphian Concert Choir under my direction. The final combined number, Lauridsen's ‘Sure on this Shining Night,’ had members of the three choirs standing side-by-side and realizing there is a ‘singing life’ after college.”

And in reference to the thirty seconds of silence following the final release of sound, Schultz said that it “demonstrated, once again, the power music has over our emotions.” Then he shared this quote:

 “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Aldous Huxley

Don't miss the Northwest Repertory Singers next concert, coming up in June and featuring the Total Experience Gospel Choir.

How Sweet the Sound Saturday, June 2, 2012 - 7:30 pm
Sunday, June 3, 2012 - 3:00 pm
Mason United Methodist Church

The Total Experience Gospel Choir joins NWRS for two concerts that you will not want to miss. Pastor Patrinell Wright founded the choir in 1973 and has led them to become one of the finest soulful choirs in the United States. The choirs will combine for a grand finale that should shake the walls of the concert hall.
Click here to order tickets online or call (253) 265-3042.
Ticket prices: General $18, Seniors/Students/Military $15, Children Under 12 free

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