On Saturday, October 30, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum (HRCM) and the Radcliffe Choral Society (RCS) gave a memorable performance in Sanders Theatre, entitled “Elegance and Exuberance.” HRCM opened the evening with “The Choral Dances” from Britten’s Gloriana, a spectacular beginning to a very impressive concert. The opening piece, “Yes He Is Time,” was sung with vigor, jolting the audience from their seats at the concert’s start. Indeed, Collegium sang with such verve that one wonders why Gloriana hasn’t been revived more often in America. Under conductor Andrew Clark’s new direction, HRCM sounds as robust as ever, and it was a joy to hear a truly dynamic program be given by the chorus at the beginning of this new era: hopefully, this will remain the trend. The selection of British choral master-composers was a solid choice by Clark for the opening concert–as many of the modern pieces reflected on what their predecessors had accomplished. HRCM’s renderings of Tallis’ “Euge Caeli Porta,” and Byrd’s “Agnus Dei” were particularly well-balanced and nuanced, and we were left hoping to hear more of Byrd’s “Mass for Four Voices.”
The first hiccup was the Chamber Singers’ performance of the incomparable “Ave Verum Corpus” by Byrd. This piece, when done to its utmost, is a polyphonic masterpiece. Unfortunately–and this was perhaps fully due to the at times challenging acoustic of Sanders–the Chamber Singers lacked the dulcet richness to slide mellifluously through the piece as a multifaceted whole and plumb the emotional depths Byrd so subtly and intricately wove.
The Radcliffe Choral Society began with another selection by William Byrd, this time “O Gloriosa Domina.” RCS seemed from the onset to be a little shaky in its tuning–a problem that continued throughout most of the Byrd and the subsequent “Sancte Deus” by Thomas Tallis. It wasn’t until Britten’s “Missa Brevis” that RCS really showed its true potential. In what Clark rightly dubbed a choral masterpiece during the concert, RCS simply shone with rich timbre, musical sensitivity and clear enjoyment. The soloists were all quite appropriately chosen for the piece, though they could have projected with much more gusto each time they assembled on center stage. Overall, the board found the piece to be a highlight of the night.
For the second half of the concert, Clark constructed a set that showed off the new work both RCS and HRCM have been doing under his tenure. While previous director James Marvin preferred Renaissance music for all the Holden Choirs and tended to veer away from modern and post-modern works, Clark included a solid repertoire of contemporary pieces. While certainly creating a different atmosphere than did Marvin’s concerts, Clark’s novel choice paid off: the audience was captivated by the precision with which each group performed the difficult and complex pieces of American choral music of the last century. In what the program describes as “tides of a current flowing,” both RCS and HRCM sounded fantastic as they mastered intricate rhythmic sequences, heavily dissonant discord, and exuberantly impassioned phrases.
In their performance of “An Immorality,” composed in 1925 by the prolific Aaron Copland, RCS sounded more precise than it had all night. Any balance issues that plagued the first half the concert disappeared after the piece’s driving opening, with the melody sung in unison. The choir transitioned easily between intense and fast-paced verses and more lighthearted interludes, all the while working well, rather than competing, with what could have been an alienating atonal piano accompaniment.
Collegium, retaking the stage to close the second half of the concert, continued the excellent performance of modern pieces. Their interpretation of Steven Stuckey’s post-modern “Whispers” was simply stunning. Alternating seamlessly between simultaneously compact and exuberant tonal range–set with a Walt Whitman poem of the same name–and an ephemeral incantation of the Eucharist hymn Ave verum corpus sung by the group’s Chamber Singers subset from the balcony above the stage, the daring choice was a resounding success. The world premiere of “Hope and Love,” a brand new composition by Carson Cooman ’04, was equally beautiful, but the highlight of the night was the closing piece. ” Sometimes I Feel Alive,” a three-movement piece by Julian Wachner, was simply captivating. Though melodically sporadic and temporally ambiguous, the choir rose to the challenge, masterfully singing with such excellent tone, blend, and balance that the poignantly nuanced emotion of the text (a setting of three poems by E. E. Cummings ’15) shone through and filled the theatre.
As the first on-campus display of the Holden Choirs’ new direction under Clark, the concert gives reason to look forward to future concerts and performances. For both groups, the night was a resounding success: despite minor tuning and balance issues, HRCM and RCS delivered a diverse and difficult repertoire with passion and fineness. “Elegance and Exuberance” truly lived up to its name.