The Falmouth Choral Soars As It Transforms Text into Music

November 19, 2010

Falmouth Chorale, Orchestra
Secular, Sacred Explored In Words & Music

The Falmouth Chorale and Orchestra opened its 47th season with a delightful assortment of poetry set to music. Artistic director John Yankee selected an engaging group of pieces for chamber choir, chamber orchestra, vocal solo, and full chorale, by Randall Thompson, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and John Rutter, providing an exhilarating evening of fine music.

The concert at the Lawrence School auditorium in Falmouth (I attended on Saturday evening; the concert was also presented on Sunday afternoon) began with three songs from Randall Thompson’s 1959 “Frostiana,” a suite of seven choral art songs based on the poetry of Robert Frost. Thompson (1899-1984) was commissioned to write the music in commemoration of the bicentennial of the Town of Amherst, and Frost’s poetry was chosen because of his association with the town, and Frost’s admiration for the work of Thompson.

The 18-member Falmouth Chamber Chorale sang three of the seven pieces: “The Road Not Taken,” “A Girl’s Garden,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Wyatt told us in the pre-concert talk, was the road taken by all of the composers selected for the concert, and the chorale rose to the challenge of performing these innovative 20th-century works.

“The Road Not Taken” began slowly, voiced by the low strings, with violins joining first, and then the voices, all blending beautifully, calmly rising and falling, creating a full, rich sound from a relatively small group of singers and instrumentalists. The printed concert program provided the text for all pieces, allowing those who had not committed the poem to memory to savor the full beauty of the words. The lush harmonies of the voices and instruments, and lyrical contributions from the winds made this piece memorable.

It was followed by the gay and spirited “A Girl’s Garden,” sung by the women of the chamber chorale. The cheery, insistent beat of the work, accentuated by the violins, and the humor of the poem created a festive mood.

“Stopping By Woods,” perhaps Frost’s most famous poem, was sung by the men of the chorale, the harp, played by Katie Lynch Koglin, opening over long, held notes by the strings. Their deep sound of the voices and the instruments was slow and measured, reverent and soothing, a lovely portrayal of the stillness and mysteriousness of the snowy woods.

Dr. Wyatt told us that Frost was present for the premiere performance of this work, and, at the end of one song, leapt to his feet, calling out, “Play it again!” I would agree. (Other sources say he hated the musical version of his poetry, but that seems hard to believe after hearing these wonderful works.)

The 22-piece orchestra, made up of talented local musicians, many from the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra, contributed much of the beauty and thoughtfulness of the evening, both in accompanying the chorus and in its solo piece, “The Unanswered Question,” by Charles Ives (1874-1954). Without specific text, the work featured the trumpet (Philip Hague) calling out a question seven times over the almost eerie, quiet undercurrent of the strings. The woodwinds try to answer, discordant and agitated. But, since the question is about the meaning of life, there is no answer, and the piece ultimately ends, the trumpet’s question hanging in the air.

Mezzo-soprano Meredith Ziegler sang three songs from Aaron Copland’s arrangements of “Poems of Emily Dickinson,” which continued the exploration of these themes of life and death, nature, and eternity. Though the three songs were quite different, Ms. Ziegler’s glorious, versatile voice seemed a perfect match for all three. “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle,” was powerful, soaring. “Heart, We Will Forget Him” is a song of lost love, and it was presented poignantly, but strong and full of resolve. “Going to Heaven” was bright, full of humor and joy, with a well-placed echoing of the theme by the trumpets. All solos were  easily heard over the vibrant orchestra.

John Rutter’s “Magnificat,” or the Song of Mary, the major work of the evening, was presented after the intermission. The seven-part musical setting of this scriptural passage from St. Luke featured the full chorale and the glorious voice of Ms. Ziegler.

The chorale and orchestra brought out the joyous, celebratory mood of the “Magnificat,” providing excellent balance between orchestra, voices, and the soloist. The second movement, “Of a Rose, A Lovely Rose,” the only one sung in English, was ethereal, exhilarating; the third, “Quia fecit mihi magna,” was big and gold, the male voices calming and inspiring.

Ms. Ziegler joined the chorale in “Et Misericordia,” her voice lyrical and impassioned, her presence riveting. Her dress, an elegant, draped, dark red, brought out the beauty of the stringed instruments, and the chorus, orchestra, soloist, and conductor seemed to glow. As the mood changed to a more contemplative one, led by the woodwind solos, Ms. Ziegler’s voice took on a more dramatic, almost sorrowful tone.

The final movement, “Gloria Patri,” opened with a big bold trumpet solo and subsided, as if after a storm. Ms. Ziegler sang confidently, triumphantly, as this inspired concert came to an end, to the cheers, applause, and satisfaction of all.

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