Sunday, December 2, 2007

University Chorus and Chamber Singers, Jackson Hall

A choral concert can transform a space and the listeners in it, as Jeffrey Thomas, the UC Davis Chamber Singers, the University Chorus, vocal soloists and instrumetalists demonstrated in Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall on Sunday evening. Works by Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707) set the tone. As Jeffrey Thomas writes in the program notes, Buxtehude changed and popularized the concerts called Abendmusiken at the Marienkirche in Lubeck. They became events that attracted people of all ages, includiing crying babes and rambuntious children. The evening at Mondavi was not rambunctious, although when an usher, helping me to my seat, said ''Enjoy the show'', I wasn't sure I'd come to the right hall.

Although Mr. Thomas suggests in the notes that Buxtehude is less well known than his younger contemporary, J.S. Bach, his work was famliar to me from childhood church attendance. While others may have been listening to the sermon, I was reading and re-reading the program; Buxtehude's works were performed by organist, choir or quartet far more often than Bach's.

Anyway, for a time on Sunday, Jackson Hall became Lubeck's Marienkirche.

Mit Fried und Freud, BuxWV 76, featured vocal and instrumental soloists, instrumentalists, and, for the fourth part, the UCD Chamber Singers. Countertenor Ian Howell has a rare and glorious voice---not that I've heard many countertenors for comparison, only three in my life---but his notes ranged far above the ceiling, very likely reaching the stars. Bass-baritone Robert Stafford was soloist for the second verse, and the two voices also joined in a duet. Stafford provided just the right depth and balance. The text, moving from peace and joy through death and dying, certainly needs both voices and, for the fourth verse, with it's emphasis on dying and pain, the soprano voices of the Chorale as well. They were an angelic blessing at the end of a suffering human life. Meanwhile, the instrumentalists---two violins, two violas, a viola da gamba, a violone, and a dulcian---created a sound that added to the emotional impact of the music. (Instrumentalists were: violins, Katherine Kyme and Carla Moore; violas, Lisa Grodin and David Daniel Bowes, viola da gamba, William Skeene; violone, Steven Lehning; and dulcian, Kate van Orden. The organ was played by Thomas but later in the concert by David Deffner.)

For Jesu meines Lebens Leben, BuxWV 62, instruments and sopranos opened, altos and men's voices soon joining to add texture, harmony and volume. Again, emotion---this time regarding Jesus' suffering, the scourges he experienced, and heartfelt thanks from the poor people whom by this means he saved---was overwhelming. I particularly loved the clarity of the separate choral voices, echoing each other, with each voice especially distinct during a capella passages. The Chamber Singers showed that they are carefully selected---could they possibly be recruited?---and admirably prepared.

Jubilate Domino, omnis terra, BuxWV 64, added an exultant, joyous note---and again the excellent Mr. Howell---to the concert. Organ and viola da gamba were accompanying instruments, Mr. Skeene and Mr. Howell often in duet. It is a song of praise to God, the King, and I felt we were privileged to hear it.

A three-verse choral cantata, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich o Herr, BuxWV 41, concluded, in magnificent fashion, the first half of the concert. With chamber orchestra and Chorale, sopranos with strings captured one's ear; the text, ''From my heart I hold you dear, O Lord,'' could capture one's heart. The legato---voices and instruments blending at all times smoothly as lines moved from one voice to another---was remarkable. Organ and voices, joined, made a touching, prayerful conclusion.

Yes, Buxtehude was expert in counterpoint in all its uses and variations, but structure seemed less important than feeling in this remarkable performance. Like many in Sunday's audience, I've been hearing UCD choral concerts for years. The Chorale singers are better than ever, and the exquisite soloists---who have sung almost everywhere---and instrumentalists could surely not be excelled anywhere.

I cannot say as much for the second half of the concert, featuring carols for Christmas by the University Chorus. It was overpowered by a production number, Bob Chilcott's Canticles of Light. With the chorus and organist onstage, a secondary choir sang from an upper balcony to the right of the audience with bells opposite to it. From my seat in the orchestra, these geographically separated voices did not blend at all. The choir needed more volume, the organ considerably less. From my seat in the orchestra, I felt I was in the belltower with the choir miles away. When the bell rang the hours, I wanted to close my ears. The voices in the upper balcony also seemed unpleasant and loud. The organ? Well, the composer must have written an elaborate part, and Mr. Deffner was giving it his all. It has been said that sound in Jackson Hall can be carefully managed. Experiencing this piece of music, you'd never know.

Eric Whitaker's Lux Aurumque charmed me by the sustained soprano part, but it was mainly an opener. John Rutter's arrangement of O Come, O Come, Immanuel, with Mr. Skeene and the viola da gamba, was a lot more than pleasing; it was beautiful. And with the closing Fantasia on Christmas Carols, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the University Chorus made music that sent everyone home enriched and in the spirit of Christmas.

---Marilyn Mantay