Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Between Heaven and Earth in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Between Heaven and Earth in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Between Heaven and Earth
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
James M. Meaders, DCINY Associate Artistic Director and Conductor, Tom Shelton, Guest Conductor, Richard Sparks, Guest Conductor
Jolaine Kerley, soprano; Timothy J. Anderson, narrator
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 7, 2016

The massed-choir events presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) generally have a very high level of music making and popular success. Monday’s concert was quite a mixed-bag, gathered under the title mentioned above. The singers come from eight states and six foreign countries and are prepared by their individual local conductors before traveling to New York to combine with many other choirs.

The first one-third of the evening was devoted to seven selections for a huge youth choir, containing all age groups from small boys up to high schoolers. They were led efficiently by Tom Shelton, who also made some of the rather slick arrangements. The selections were not performed in the order listed on the program, and one was left out entirely. Perhaps I shouldn’t evaluate this performance with the same rigor I would apply to a professional choir. Surprisingly, the enormous group had trouble actually projecting, except when the vocal writing allowed the voices to soar to higher notes, where one could enjoy the characteristic gleam of such an age-group. The repertoire extended from modern sacred, to Baroque, folk-inspired (Stephen Hatfield’s moving Family Tree), even Italian madrigal. The exciting Ritmo by Dan Davison involved not only singing, but clapping, stomping, finger-snaps, chest thumps, and marching in place—a veritable encyclopedia of eurhythmics, accompanied by piano four-hands (the very capable Matthew Webb, assisted by his page turner).

Several instrumental solos were featured: trumpeters Anna Roman and Jesdelson Vasquez; and flutist Tamar Benami, as well as a fearless (uncredited) choir member for the concluding Go Down Moses. The performance certainly brought pleasure to the many parents and friends of the singers in the audience, and it is good to see young people (a) learning music at all, and (b) working together on something instead of the relentless isolating march of the cell phone.

After the infamous “brief pause” to shift huge choirs (only ten minutes this time), conductor Richard Sparks led a new chorus, narrator, and soprano, with a small ensemble of piano, organ, two oboes, two French horns, and a percussion assemblage, in the New York premiere of Toronto-based composer Allan Bevan’s Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode. The composer also played his own organ part. This work takes many of the sentiments in the traditional crucifixion scene Stabat Mater and ramps up the grief until a sort of transfiguration occurs to Mary, who then sings a concluding Alleluia. The choral writing relies too heavily on musical clichés of mourning, aiming for monumentality, but the whole was very sincere. The O Vos Omnes section was particularly successful. The part for narrator was a bit odd, sometimes too soft despite amplification. There were other moments when the chorus, narrator, and soloist were drowned out, despite the small instrumental ensemble size. The valiant soprano was the very good Jolaine Kerley, whose clarity and expression were top-notch. She wisely chose to just stop singing the climactic loud high D-flat (her last note) before it gave out entirely, just keeping her mouth open and letting the choral resonance fool you into thinking she was still singing it. Smart lady, this trick was sometimes employed by the likes of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

After intermission, James Meaders, one of DCINY’s associate artistic directors, conducted yet another two-hundred-plus singers and large string orchestra in the Sunrise Mass by the young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. This was by far the most beautiful and intriguing work on the program. He set the traditional Latin texts of the Mass, but gave each section a title having to do with the (usually) natural world: The Spheres (Kyrie), Sunrise (Gloria), The City (Credo), Identity (Sanctus) & The Ground (Agnus Dei). His use of tone clusters and overlapping chords makes the musical language seem more modern than it really is, but very beautiful. In The Spheres, motives that are first heard “smudging” into each other are later presented cleanly as a melody by the choir. The work is also cyclic, that is, themes heard are reused elsewhere in the work, a time-honored technique and one that gives unity. There is perhaps a bit of over-reliance on stock “minimalist” gestures in the string parts. The final chord of the piece, on the word Pacem (peace) was stunning in its hushed quality, held for a very, very appropriate long time.

Perhaps music is what’s “between heaven and earth.”

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Of Life and Liberty in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Of Life and Liberty in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Of Life and Liberty
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Matt Oltman, conductor; James M. Meaders, conductor; Viola Dacus, mezzo-soprano
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
January 19, 2014

A Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) concert is always a memorable experience. As I ran the gauntlet of massed chorus members from Mississippi assembled in the back area as I went to pick up my tickets, I was reminded of what the DCINY experience is all about. The excitement and nervousness of men and women of all ages in what was likely the thrill of a lifetime filled that very cramped space in such a way as to overwhelm me with a similar feeling. Any irritation I might have felt at that moment washed away when a smiling chorus member offered to sing the program if I were unable to retrieve my tickets! At last, the way was cleared, and I wished them all the best of luck.

The World Premiere of The Gettysburg Address in a new arrangement for men’s voices from Mark Hayes (b. 1953) opened the concert.  In my review in this journal from May 27, 2013 (“Requiems for the Brave”), when this work was performed in its original version for mixed voices and orchestra, I wrote the following:

“About The Gettysburg Address [the music], Mr. Hayes in his program notes writes, ‘…the challenge of creating something musically profound was overwhelming.’ These ten sentences [the address itself] are filled with sadness, hope, challenge, and triumph in what is probably the most famous speech in American History. Mr. Hayes’ conception captures all of these elements, from the bold opening, played with a brash exuberance, to the somber colors of the sorrows of war, to the final build-up in a martial style culminating with repeated declarations of “for the people” from the chorus.  It is a powerful work that does justice to Lincoln’s immortal words.”

In this revised version I find my initial thoughts to be unchanged. If anything, the effect is deepened by the use of men’s voices alone.  The Testament of Freedom, from underappreciated composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984), followed. Commissioned in 1943 to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, this work has become a favorite for men’s choruses. When one hears the work, it is easy to see why this is the case: hymn-like melodies, stirring text, and expert vocal writing.  Thompson used the writings of Jefferson for the text of the four movements, with a strong focus on Jefferson’s unwavering belief in the unalienable rights of man. The chorus, consisting of members from Minnesota, Illinois, Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Alberta, Canada sang with strength, clear diction, and fine balance throughout. The third movement, “We fight not for glory,” was the highlight to this listener, but the whole performance was excellent. The animated Matt Oltman was a dynamic conductor who coaxed every last ounce of dramatic energy from both the chorus and the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra in both works.

The second half consisted of the New York premiere of Requiem for the Living from composer Dan Forrest (b. 1978). About the title Mr. Forrest writes, “the five movements form a narrative just as much for the living, and their own struggle with pain and sorrow, as for the dead.” Mr. Forrest freely used the standard mass as a model, with the substitution of a movement he entitled Vanitas Vanitatum (quoting from the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes) in place of the Dies Irae. This work is by no means complex in the vocal writing or the harmonic language, but the net effect is one of great import. Requiem for the Living is one of the most moving works I have heard in a very long while. It is truly a case of the maximum effect from the minimum of means, the mark of a highly skilled composer. It was a performance to remember, from the quiet opening of the Introit and Kyrie, the driving energy of the sinister Vanitas Vanitatum, and the serene Agnus Dei, to the celestial influenced magic of the Sanctus and hauntingly beautiful Lux Aeterna, which slowly faded away to nothing. In the Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna, Mezzo-soprano soloist Viola Dacus sang with a pure, radiant voice that captured the essence of child-like innocence. Conductor James M. Meaders led the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and the chorus with meticulous restraint and close attention to detail. When he lowered his baton after the sound died away, the audience erupted into a prolonged ovation. Congratulations, my new friends from Mississippi, you were all stars today.