NEW CHORAL WORK HIGHLIGHTS "OF POETS AND MUSIC"
AT FESTIVAL MIAMI
By Lawrence Budmen
Eric Whitacre is a multitalented composer. He has worked in both the classical and popular music genres and received a 2002 Grammy nomination for best contemporary classical crossover album. A revised version of his "Five Hebrew Love Songs" ("Only the Beginning") was the highlight of the Festival Miami concert "Of Poets and Music" on October 4, 2002 at Gusman Hall on the UM campus. Based on original texts by Hila Plitmann, Whitacre's music is by turns ecstatically romantic, rousingly folksy, poignant, tender, and wistful. His choral writing is masterful. The combinations of women's and men's part singing are lushly neo-romantic. This new version of the score features a sensuous violin obbligato replete with cascading slides and cadenzas and lively tambourine riffs. The rapturous outpouring of romantic song that Whitacre has created is a minor masterpiece and a major addition to the modern choral repertoire. There is not a note too many in this score. It is the work of a composer who combines formal restraint with a strong impulse to connect directly with his audience.
The score was given a superb performance by the University of Miami Chorale under the direction of Jo-Michael Scheibe. The near perfect articulation, dead center intonation, and amplitude of tonal thrust produced a glorious sound. There was a sweetness of vocal tone and strength of ensemble that are the hallmarks of superior choral performance. Violinist Christian Macelaru played with honey toned rubato and Mandy Mikita-Scott contributed lively tambourine interjections.
Earlier in the concert there was a lack of precise intonation and solidity of ensemble in the performance of the University of Miami Chamber Singers under James Bass and Gary Keating. Their best offering was an attractive five movement cycle "Changing Perceptions," a 1989 score by Dan Locklair. The music begins and ends with the chorus whistling a rhythmic figure. In between there are songs of grief and solemnity and "High Flight," a vigorous Aaron Copland style paean to the open skies that gives ways to a more reflective conclusion. This music is idiomatically written for choral forces and has a fluid lyrical ebb and flow.
Scheibe and his University Chorale made their presence felt immediately with "Ov'e Lass,' Il Bel Viso?" from "Fire Songs" by Morten Lauridsen, a composition professor at the University of Southern California and resident composer of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Lauridsen has created a modern a cappella madrigal that brings forth a glorious cacophony of rousing song. The full, rounded tonal strength of the unison choral singing was thrilling to hear. Scheibe is a dynamic choral director. With minimal conducting gestures, he obtains wonderful results from his choral forces. From full throated ensemble singing to the most subtle, pianissimo vocal effects Scheibe has absolute command of the singers before him. He sets the highest standard for choral performance.
The beautiful, expressive singing of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Come Sweet Death" was appended by a sonorous madrigal like epitaph that was deeply moving. The Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom's warmly emotional setting of the "Sanctus" evoked more subtly refined choral responses. Two of Whitacre's "Songs of Praise (on texts by e.e. cummings)" brought understated introspection and lovely choral writing. The world premiere of "The Tooth That Nibbles At the Soul" by Daniel Hall was a study in dynamic contrasts with the striking sounds of a hand bell choir providing exclamation points. Scheibe and his forces made the most of this study in choral technique.
"El Guayaboso" by the contemporary Cuban composer Guido Lopez-Gavilan was a spirited rumba that featured the tangy sound of conga drums and percussive vocal effects. "Amor Que une con El Amore Grandisimo" ("Love that Unites Me With the Greatest Love") from "Cantos Alegres" by University of Florida professor Paul Basler was a lush choral aria with horn obbligato. "El Vito" was a full voiced setting of a familiar Spanish melody by Mark Wilberg, associate director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Scheibe and his chorus rocked the rafters with a joyous noise. Robert Glower and David Rhyne were the adroit piano accompanists.
Mark Hart, former WTMI radio personality, offered apt comments on the relationship of poetry and music by Beethoven, Goethe, and Mark Twain among others. The concert was dominated by the luminous, romantic music of Eric Whitacre and the magnificent conducting of Jo-Michael Scheibe.