By Lawrence Budmen

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) created one of the great choral masterpieces of the 20th century with his Dona Nobis Pacem. Composed in the mid 1930’s (as the drums of war beat across Europe) this score is a deeply moving plea for peace. Vaughan Williams combined traditional Latin texts with the powerful verbal imagery of Walt Whitman who, like the composer, knew the horrors of war first hand. Plainsong and British folk song infuse Vaughan Williams’s musical language which is thoroughly rooted in early 20th century tonality. Aural winds of Sibelius and such British contemporaries as Holst (especially in the setting of Whitman’s Beat! Beat! Drums! from Taps) and Walton sweep through the sound palette. Yet this is the work of a composer with his own sound – a distinctive musical language. (The composer’s nine symphonies remain pillars of Western orchestral composition and can not be mistaken for the work of any other creative artist.) The hard edged lyricism of the Dona Nobis Pacem speaks eloquently of the futility of war. That message remains timely today. The Master Chorale of South Florida and the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia under the magisterial direction of Jo-Michael Scheibe presented a superb traversal of this memorable score on January 14, 2006 at the Second Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA. 

Appropriately titled “In Celebration of Peace,” the concert began with a stirring rendition of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (by the orchestra’s brass and percussion section) from the balcony of the church sanctuary. The choir’s associate conductor Jeffri Bantz led the orchestral strings in a richly luminous performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Barber’s orchestral version of the second movement of his string quartet has become America’s national music of mourning. (The score was played at the funerals of Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy. Director Oliver Stone used this music to telling effect in the film Platoon.) 

Jo-Michael Scheibe is a superb choral director. As chief director of choral activities at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Scheibe has presented many notable concerts – often devoted to contemporary music. His stirring presentation of David Fanshawe’s landmark, multicultural African Sanctus in 2003 remains an indelible memory. A fervent perfectionist, Scheibe set a new standard for the Master Chorale with his surging, vividly dramatic performance of the Dona Nobis Pacem. 

In the warmly resonant acoustics of the Second Presbyterian Church on Ft. Lauderdale’s North side, the strings of the recently formed Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia sounded rich and lustrous; the brass had cutting power and bite. Soprano Rebecca Sherburn exhibited wavering intonation in her opening plea Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace) but she gained confidence as the score progressed. The characterful vulnerability of her light soprano became a tower of strength. 

As a segue to the first Whitman setting, granite like brass fanfares had visceral impact and firepower. Scheibe brought tremendous energy to the fierce setting of battle cries from Taps. The strong, massive sound of the Master Chorale was thrilling! In the contrasting Whitman poem Reconciliation, the warm, mellow baritone voice of David McCutcheon embraced Vaughan William’s evocative, deeply felt arioso. 

An exquisite violin solo by concertmaster Huifang Chen led to the massive choral setting of Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans. Amid heartrending harp glissandos, hushed strings, and clarion brass timbres, Scheibe’s masterful blend of choral textures was a sound of true beauty. The hushed, acappella conclusion was magical! Scheibe brilliantly achieved huge contrasts of dynamics and vocal color. McCutcheon brought dramatic power to John Bright’s grim vision of the Angel of Death. The natural beauty of his burnished sound was pure gold.

The fervent intensity of Vaughan William’s musical realization of the text from Jeremiah – We Looked for Peace, But No Good Came… - was brought to life with throbbing excitement. The beauty of the choral sound was astounding. In the serene orchestral interlude, a noble theme on the violas was phrased with majesty. Final Psalm settings lead to a great sunburst of choral and orchestral sound – masterfully achieved by Scheibe. A hushed, reverent conclusion and the soprano’s final plea for peace seemed to freeze time. Scheibe held the final soft notes. A moment of quiet contemplation was followed by a prolonged ovation from an audience that had been deeply moved.

The Master Chorale of South Florida (less than two years old in its present configuration) has come of age with this outstanding presentation of Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece. Here was a score for our times performed with fervor and musical integrity – a moment of spiritual uplift! 

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