by Ken Hoover, Classical Voice of North Carolina
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Read notes for Songs for Women's Voices (2004) for SSAA chorus and chamber orchestra
It's the time of the year when the term papers get cooking, the final tests get scheduled, and the proms get planned. Seniors who have spent four years studying are beginning to appreciate what they have been through and all it will mean to them in the days ahead. Chorale, glee club, and band concerts are the last – as collegians – for many of them, and they are celebrations of one aspect of their educational experiences. Such was the mood of the Meredith Chorale and Encore vocal groups on March 15 in Jones Chapel. Lisa Fredenburgh prepared the singers and conducted them and members of the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra (Randolph Foy, Music Director) in a concert of music mostly by contemporary and recent American composers.
The twenty-four-voice Meredith Chorale opened the concert with what the director said were four of the singers' favorite pieces. "O Vos Omnes," a Latin motet by Thomas Juneau, director of Cincinnati Baroque, and "Et in Terra Pax," by the Oregon based Joan Szymko, are contemporary selections in the style that Morten Lauridsen, Rene Clausen, and others have made so popular. The rich harmonies with well-chosen and well-constructed dissonances were for the most part handled nicely by the choir in spite of a slightly off-pitch train whistle down the road at the fairgrounds crossing. "Snowforms," by Canadian composer R. Murray Schaeffer, is something different. It is mostly humming, with Eskimo words for different kinds of snow driving some different vocalizations. It is atmospheric and ethereal. The spiritual "Let Me Fly," arranged by Robert DeCormier, seemed quite ordinary after the Shaeffer.
The seven-member ensemble Encore sang two madrigals from 16-17th-century England, one by Thomas Weelkes and the other by Thomas Morley. The Weelkes is playful and the Morley is full of the exquisite, unrequited longings of the young lover. These were followed by a jazz arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," "One Fine Day" (not by Puccini), and a very pleasant setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's well known "How do I Love Thee." The women sang with a kind of joy – and obvious pleasure in what they were doing – that was beguiling.
The major attraction of the evening was the premiere of a new orchestral arrangement of Songs for Women's Voices – Poetry by May Swenson, by Gwyneth Walker, one of America's leading composers. Previously written for women's chorus and keyboard, the version given at Meredith was newly done and accompanied by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, 22 strong including strings, woodwinds and percussion. The six movements of the piece are setting of poems by Swenson, some whimsical, some touching, some heroic. "The Name is Changeless," the third poem, set for a richly-harmonized chorus and soft bells, was wonderful. "Love is a Rain of Diamonds" is cleverly scored using strings and flutes, not so much to mimic the sounds of rain or diamonds but to convey the richness of the concept. The colors Walker creates using the orchestral instruments are varied, rich, and creative, always supporting the vocal presentation and never overpowering the singers. In this reviewer's judgment, the orchestration is quite successful, and the performance was most satisfying. Walker, who was in the audience and had been involved in the preparation of the concert, seemed pleased as well.