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ISSUE 119 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/24/2006

Cantorei wows

By Carolyn McCardell
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 24, 2006

On Monday evening in Boe Memorial Chapel, the St. Olaf Cantorei performed its spring concert. More like a worship service than a concert, “Meditation on Christ's Passion” included a cycle of dramatic Gospel readings and audience participation in hymns. Lush textures, glorious swells and hushes, and fervent musicality throughout made for a beautiful and engaging performance that artfully incorporated spiritual meaning.

After about half of Boe had filled, the concert began with atmospheric handbell-ringing in a minor key as the 89 singers processed in. The bells continued as they sang “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” and filed onto the risers in their priestly blue and white robes. The concert included music from the late-Renaissance English composer Orlando Gibbons, arrangements of American spirituals and pieces composed or arranged by Cantorei's conductor John Ferguson.

Ferguson accompanied the choir on the organ during several pieces while David Sims '06 conducted. As assistant conductor, Sims displayed impressive skill in navigating challenging choral material. Other pieces were a capella and conducted by Ferguson; one rousing gospel tune involved piano and tambourine.

The cycle of Passion readings interspersed with the music were creatively staged. The viewer's eye shifted from a narrator at a podium on the left to half a dozen chorus members on the right reading lines of specific characters such as Pontius Pilate or voicing the cries of the Jewish crowd. Each reading was dynamically delivered and followed by a choral “response” with a thematically appropriate anthem or hymn.

The audience was requested to stand and sing parts of each hymn, keeping the viewers fresh as well as allowing them to participate.

The musical highlights of the concert include John D. Edwards' “My Song is Love Unknown,” filled with Romantic rubato and arrestingly beautiful high chords, often inspiring head-tingling goose-bumps.

Carl Schalk's “Sing My Tongue, The Glorious Battle” smoldered to a hush and finished in brilliant strength. Ferguson's arrangement of the hymn “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” thoroughly moved the audience with flute and formal choral textures over organ, seamlessly woven into syncopated rhythms from the Spiritual tradition.

In Michael Tippett's “Steal Away,” the sopranos sustained a high, soul-piercing straight-tone, followed by more shimmering and clustered peals from the women descending into more of the lush textures championed by the choir throughout the program.

The “bidding prayers” and an evening canticle sealed off the performance in the tradition of choral evensong; the prayers connected the themes of betrayal, human weakness and suffering brought up in the Passion narrative to modern-day life as the reader prayed “for those who have been abused, betrayed or mocked,” as well as “for us [those present who participate in the Christian faith]” when we deny Jesus or live at the expense of others. Coupled with the reading of a quote from a hospitalized Hurricane Katrina victim, the choir's message came across as devout and socially conscious. The meditative tone at the program's close was abruptly ended by hearty applause.

The choir maintained solid energy throughout with only the slightest signs of flagging at the beginning of the last two pieces. The handful of slight, momentary, and far-between tuning imperfections and the two equally brief voice-blending flaws in the concert did not compromise the otherwise impeccable performance.

The continuous musicality, artful program planning and thorough preparation of the choir made for a thrilling and prayerful experience. Those present will remember it as the finest Cantorei concert, and one of the best choral concerts, in recent memory.

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