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.