Master, Salisbury Singers lend vigor to modern choral works

Master, Salisbury Singers lend vigor to modern choral works

By John Zeugner
Telegram & Gazette Reviewer

Article published June 11, 2007 … Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.

The work of two contemporary American composers, Paul Basler and Gwyneth Walker, was featured in Saturday night’s joint concert by the Master Singers of Worcester and the Salisbury Singers at St. Paul Cathedral.

The blended choruses, 110 strong across the full width of St. Paul’s sanctuary, provided gorgeously rendered evidence of the beauty, charm and power of recent choral composition.

The program opened with Basler’s “Missa Kenya,” a Latin Mass that reflected Basler’s Fulbright experiences in Nairobi, as well as his own strengths as a French horn specialist (more than 100 horn compositions have been commissioned directly for him) and professor of music at the University of Florida.

Michelle Graveline, music director of the Salisbury Singers, conducted the Mass with her characteristic attention to nuance and enunciation, achieving in the concluding “Agnus Dei,” a sweet, supple, reverential harmony that neatly intertwined with the superb French horn playing of Carolyn Cantrell. The composition was remarkable, infusing Basler’s North Carolinian mountain music roots with East African rhythms and traditional Latin Mass conventions.

There was a first-rate tenor solo by David Hill in the “Credo” segment and impressive percussion work by Kristjan Asgeirsson and William MacGillvray throughout.

The opening half of the concert concluded with adroitly performed choral songs by Jean Berger and Ysaye M. Barnwell, and some occasionally exasperating colloquy with outside police sirens.

The second half of the concert was given over to Gwyneth Walker’s memorable amalgam of New England music and literature, “New England Journey,” a work commissioned for the 30th anniversary of the Master Singers of Worcester. That group’s artistic director, Malcolm Halliday, conducted.

If Graveline had emphasized the joint group’s cerebral intensity, nuance and control, Halliday pushed forward the group’s energy, dynamics and local patriotism. Walker’s piece is a marvel of intelligence and indepth feel for New England’s cultural range, from the haunting lilt of an Elizabeth Bishop sonnet, to the barbed satire of an Emily Dickinson poem, to the ferocious judgment of a William Billings song, to the sweet implied salvation of a Shaker hymn, and the calm resolution of a Whittier poem. Walker has found uncanny ways of blending her music with the sentiments expressed. The six different expressions dovetailed magically in renderings that were sweet, powerful and enthralling in Walker’s beguiling meditation on, in Billings’ phrase, “New England’s soul forever reigns.”

Walker had come down from Vermont for this event, and the audience immediately gave her a standing ovation.

The power of contemporary composition was a thread weaving its way through this year’s St. Paul Music Festival, culminating in this joint chorus concert. That thread was evident in the June 5 concert with Ian Watson conducting a blockbuster fierce rendering of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony by the amazing Worcester Collegium Strings; in June 7’s afternoon concert by Jeffrey Wood at the organ, deftly performing rarely-heard contemporary compositions by Jean Langlais and Joel Martinson; and in, presumably (this reviewer could not attend), the June 8 world premiere of Ruth Lomon’s orchestration of Rebecca Clarke’s “Sonata for Viola and Orchestra.”

In short, it was a wonderful week for music in Worcester and a reminder of the terrific talent in town.

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