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Alive, Awake, and Singing

January 8, 2011

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

It’s still here! The male chorus — particularly the college glee club, that is. A prominent and proficient exemplar of a breed and a great tradition thought to have been diminishing, the Cornell University Glee Club from Ithaca, N.Y., made a fine concert showing Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The excellent impression made by the 60 young men was of a finely finished vocalism from beginning to end of their a cappella program. The rich male-voice sonority, with its distinctive tonal appeal, was excellently balanced (the basses fuller than expected at college age; the tenors light-voiced, singing in easy head-tone; with each section blended as one). This was the work of a conductor who knows his medium well: Scott Tucker, a professor and choral director at Cornell. The ease and smoothness of the delivery, the unity in the expressive shaping of phrases, the musical flow — all reflected Tucker’s sound musicianship and obvious rapport with his singers.

There is clearly much pride and togetherness in Cornell’s tradition, evidenced in the alumni presence in the hall and on the program of three of its Glee Club’s alumni. The first, David Conte, in his 26th year on the S.F. Conservatory’s faculty, provided a lovely piece for a Glee Club commission, Crossing the Bar. An insightful setting of Tennyson’s poem, it has a shapely profile that turns on a harmonic sequence recurring near the end, like a rhyme. A second work, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, to W.B. Yeats’ famous poem, by Byron Adams of the UC Riverside music faculty, which alternated lines in unison of a certain eloquence with warmly cast part-writing, made for a thoughtful, moving composition. Finally, Joseph Gregorio contributed a setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Sudden Light. A pedal or drone note created an initial sense of meditation before expanding lyrically in a romantic mode.

With Robert H. Young’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal (to Tennyson’s lyric) and two Love Songs by Matthew Harris added to those, a Romantic idiom in the modern harmonic style predominated. The sole quality wanted in the program was contrast in style, certainly in dynamic range, texture, and mood. While texts were fairly audible, and vowel sounds consistent and true, consonants were soft, lenis, mollifying the expressive effect or sense of the meaning,

Three works provided some contrast. For Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, the Glee Club, separated in several choirs, sang phrases of Komm Süsser Tod thickened by dissonant accretions. Preceding a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia Hymn was his Metsaemiehen laulu (Woodsman’s song), an intense piece. The vigorously articulated Finnish of the poem, a nature boy’s heroic posture, had rhythmic energy. This was even truer of the Indian raga, Ramkali (arranged by Ethan Sperry) — in Hindi, I believe — that was the fierce and climactic closer of the program’s first half.

The second half conformed to typical glee club practice with lighter, familiar fare: Loch Lomond, two sea shanties, and Franz Biebl’s ever-favorite Ave Maria, all handsomely sung. Finally came the traditional covey of rousing Cornell songs, with alumni of the Glee Club and then, of the university, forming a significant part of the audience, coming to the stage to join in.

The Cornell Glee Club’s tradition was discussed beforehand in a public discussion by Tucker, Conte, Gregorio, and Adams, as well as by Thomas Sokol, its distinguished conductor for 38 years since 1957, now emeritus. After its five Bay Area appearances, the group’s 12-concert tour turned south as far as Los Angeles and San Diego.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.