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A Loving Chorus, A Transport

August 22, 1999

By Jonathan Dimmock

With 800-some choral ensembles in the Bay Area, we can expect to encounter varying degrees of professional product, both musically and organizationally. Consequently, it was a pleasure to discover in Sunday's concert at Trinity Episcopal Church that the four-year-old San Francisco Lyric Chorus demonstrates clearly the attribute of presenting high quality without losing its community appeal. The chorus of 60 voices exemplifies the word "amateur", from the Latin for "lover." It truly loved what it was creating in attention to musical detail and intonation, and in contact with the audience

The first indication of this was its beautifully detailed concert program. The program's theme, Sacred Music, was certainly broad (often a pitfall), but instead of the usual chain of many short pieces, four large works, composed between 1881 and 1948, dominated the program and lent it thematic integrity. Furthermore, owing to their breadth and difficulty, these are works that one rarely, if ever, hears in a liturgical context. In addition, two works by medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen opened the concert. Judging from founder and director Robert Gurney's programs for the upcoming season, as well as the listing of past concerts, imaginative programming is always to be expected of his ensemble.

The music of Hildegard, Columba Aspexit, sung by a group of sopranos, and O Ignis Spiritus, sung by tenors, set the stage for what followed, even though it was of a completely different era from the rest of the concert. With those works, the audience instantly became aware of how ideal Trinity Church's acoustics are for choral music--fully resonant with just the slightest reverberation.

The light singing that proved to be the group's vocal calling card was most comfortable in these haunting plainsong melodies. The alternation of soloists and ensemble, the perfection of the sopranos' intonation (not the tenors'), and the purity of the singing was a treat. Yet at the same time, stylistically, the music itself was sung unimaginatively. Every note was of equal duration, and there was very little word accentuation.

Poulenc's Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d'Assise (1948), for men's voices was inconsistent in its effect. In this most harmonically complex music on the program, not all parts were certain of pitches. French pronunciation was lacking in correct vowel timbre, and the tonal palette was altogether too bland. This is music which requires more bite, even though they are settings of prayers. It is not enough to be able to sing softly or loudly if each phrase doesn't carry its own shape.

Fauré's Messe Basse (Low Mass, 1881), for women's voices was more successful. Okay, the timbre was not that of French women, but perhaps all the English recordings of this work have altered our expectations of suitable tone production for this music. Regardless, it was simple and elegant.

The first half concluded with Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs featuring baritone Ted Bakkila. Composed in 1911 for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, England, this shows Vaughan Williams at his most sensuous. Using the poetry of the metaphysical poet, George Herbert, the music of these five movements, on themes of Easter, captures the simplicity and warmth of the Edwardian age. The clear voice of Bakkila, a former member of Chanticleer, was perfectly suited to this music. Caressing each phrase, his crescendi and diminuendi complemented the choral writing exquisitely. Even though the organist, David Hatt, lagged behind him (and the conductor) for much of the piece, Bakkila was undeterred. This was the first time the audience heard the entire chorus singing together, and the English music provided the perfect wedding of light choral timbre and musical affect.

The second half of the program consisted of Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces. With the pieces scored for full chorus and orchestra, Hatt and Gurney both worked on registering Trinity's Romantic organ to give it the effect of a full orchestra. This is one of the finest organs in the state for orchestral transcriptions, and Hatt showed it off to tremendous, thrilling effect.

Even so, Gurney's consistently clear conducting couldn't quite make all four of these movements a success. The fault, I believe, lies partly with Verdi. The composer never intended the first movement (Ave Maria) to be performed. Written as an exercise, it is clearly the weakest and least interesting. While the other three movements are stronger, they don't consistently hold up to any of his great operatic works. Interestingly, the composer wished to be buried with his manuscript of the final movement, the Te Deum.

The lightness of the singing was least successful here where one wants to hear full voices using vibrato. Yes, the ensemble could sing loud and could sing soft, but again, the crescendi seemed all too infrequent, with diminuendi only at the ends of sections. Even with the stated reservations, the concert was a success, transporting its audience to a new place, one of beauty.

(Jonathan Dimmock is a freelance conductor, organist, accompanist, coach, and continuo player.)

©1999 Jonathan Dimmock, all rights reserved