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California Tour, Sep 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

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Trinity Goes to Tinseltown

We Americans often find the concept of an established church difficult to grasp. As our fellow citizens debate school prayer, crosses in public parks, and vouchers for religious schools, official state support of the church remains de rigueur is other lands and is an integral part of state education. This is particularly apparent at the famous British universities Oxford and Cambridge.

American colleges usually view ensembles as an elective or extracurricular activity; choral singers here are performers. By contrast, British choirs, in their famous Oxbridge form, serve as quality church choirs for school chapels. They sing anywhere from four to seven (or more) services a week but rarely give concerts, apart from tours. The time that choir members (called “Choral Scholars”) devote to their college is viewed as a service to the university and the church, and the scholars are rewarded by financial and housing assistance, lessons, and the educational opportunities of touring. 

The Trinity choir is unique among British college and cathedral choirs because it’s one of the few mixed-voice choirs that maintains a reputation on par with men’s and boys’ choirs, such as the ones at King’s and St. John’s colleges down the street. Trinity College Chapel is a noted, acoustically excellent gem of Tudor architecture where Trinity College maintained a choirboy school until the 1890s. The college established the current mixed-voice choir in 1982 when the school started admitting women.

It’s not surprising, then, that admission to Trinity’s Choir is especially prestigious for women. The soprano section is perfect; yes, perfect — an adjective that a music critic can rarely utter. This year’s soprano crop sings with perfect clarity, blend, intonation, and warmth. The other sections usually lent strong support to the sopranos who, unfortunately, tended to overbalance, and the full choir achieved first-rate intonation and blend, highly impressive fortes, and less impressive soft singing.

Chorus master Stephen Layton appeared relaxed and reserved on the podium, and he amply supported the choir’s already-strong voices. His fluid and welcoming gestures encouraged the singers to sing freely and comfortably. He held complete control of the choir through his minimal and assured presence, and he never indicated that the singers weren’t working hard enough, which can unintentionally derail the singers.

A Polished and Wide-ranging Repertoire

The choir opened the evening with three memorized works by John Taverner, Arvo Pärt, and King Henry VIII (no less), establishing its versatility to sing in concert as well as in chapel. This was underscored in the lusty performance of Henry’s nonsacred Pastime in Good Company. English chapel choirs go through a lot of music each week, leaving some of it underrehearsed, but it was obvious the choir had especially polished its tour repertory. I found the extra work to learn period pronunciation, such as the Tudor pronunciation of the king’s own words, to be quite interesting.

Works for double choir by C.V. Stanford, J.S. Bach, and Felix Mendelssohn followed. St. Paul’s church is similarly sized to the Trinity Chapel, and I would have preferred the divided choir to stand in different areas of the room, as that’s how chapel choirs usually sing. The Trinity Choir tended to sound a bit British in the German works, yet there was plenty of attention to detail. 

The choir, however, knew what it was singing about in the next work, Henry Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord, one of the best choral works of all time. From a simple beginning, the work builds and builds through the repeating “hear my prayer” text, becoming ceaselessly more tortured and desperate. 

They closed the first half with Gustav Holst’s setting of the Nunc dimittis text 3 one of the most appropriate and typical works in a Cambridge Evensong, and the Trinity Chapel Choir’s musical heart.

Singing to Please

It was a shame that last-minute organ problems (it was undergoing renovation) forced cancellation of Elgar’s mega-anthem Great Is the Lord. This bequeathed the concert’s second half to an array of crowd-pleasers. Spirituals are one of the true American gifts to the musical repertory of choirs around the world. The Trinity Choir opened a string of jazzy choral spiritual arrangements with a strong and vigorous setting of Way Over in Beulah-lan’ by local celebrity Joseph Jennings. I generally don’t have a problem with choirs’ adapting the music of other cultures. After all, a good melody is a good melody. But we Americans have a heightened sensitivity to racial and cultural issues. Could an all-white choir’s pronunciation of a text like “We gonna have a good time” sound like musical blackface? Should a choir change “goin’” to “going” or “want to” to “wonna”?

The concert closed with trendy works by Americans Eric Whitacre and (in an encore) Morten Lauridsen. Whitacre’s simple, pretty music sounds like the Singers Unlimited without the jazz — dense, consonant “cluster” chord after chord on a new-age text climaxing near the end. Such works are really carried by the tone quality of a choir rather than the music or poetry. Although Whitacre’s Sleep dreamed of skipping through a meadow to catch butterflies, it might as well have been the phone book; it still would have won the audience over, and it did.

Since the mid-1990s, Lauridson has become a choral Vivaldi: composing the same piece 20-something times. These derivative works all share the same tempos and harmonies — especially one unique chord. If an audience has never heard the work before, this music is most effective and original; nevertheless, the tooth fairy does not leave quarters forever. This time, Lauridson’s piece was called Sure on This Shining Night. After an evening of impeccable intonation, hearing a piano in equal temperament was a strain on my ears. The composer’s music receives quite a few purchase orders from high schools, and it felt like the music it was meant to be.

So much excellent, yet audience-pleasing, choral music has been written in recent years that it’s a shame to favor such tabloid composition. Nevertheless, Trinity Choir’s concert in Oakland (in addition to its performances in San Francisco and on the Peninsula) was one of the best Bay Area choral concerts of the year.

Thomas Busse