by David K. Rodgers
GREENSBORO – Last summer a new singing group came together in the St. Johnsbury area forming the Halcyon Chorale, with 16 members dedicated to presenting the best classical music repertoire. This past weekend they gave their initial concerts at the South Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury and the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro on Friday and Saturday afternoon respectively, to appreciative audiences.
The selection of pieces drew from a wide variety of traditions and languages, from Russian, Latin, German, French, and Persian to English. The program notes were particularly excellent in their background information, translations and even visual illustrations. In addition, Lucas Weiss introduced each work with insightful commentaries.
The overarching theme of the concert was the contrast between dark and light, appropriate to the present winter season. The first piece was a Galacian chant from the Eastern Orthodox part of Europe (which includes Ukraine), entitled “An Exapostilarion of Pasche,” which was something of a dirge in a slow tempo, the text focusing on the hope of eternal life embodied in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Sergie Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote the next work, “Bogowditse Devo,”sung in Russian, celebrating Mary as the mother of the savior of mankind. Two soloists were featured in juxtaposition to the whole chorus.
The following three songs pictured the horrors of war. “Plorate Filii Israel” by Giacomo Carissimi (c. 1605-1674) was a lament in Latin for the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephite as related by the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, with a nice play of lower male voices with the higher female ones. Frances Poulenc (1899-1963) composed his “Un Soir de Neige” (“A Night of Snow”) in 1944 at the end of the brutal Nazi occupation of France, to poems of Paul Elward. We feel the intense suffering of people in the depths of winter without any source of heat in the four parts of the music, reinforced by dissonance and a reserved tempo. “La Bataille” by Clement Janequin (c. 1485-1558) nominally glorified war under King Francois I with its exaggeration but betrays a certain cynicism in his use of nonsense syllables in the second half of the text. The rondo structure of overlapping voices and some upbeat rhythms gave the singers many entertaining passages.
Following the intermission, the Halcyon Chorale presented “Earth Seen From Above” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) from her opera “Atlas,” which is based on the life of Alexander David-Néel (1868-1969), an intrepid traveler who was one of the first persons to explore Tibet. The lights were turned off in the house and singers positioned themselves around the audience (in the second floor balcony in Greensboro), each with a lighted music holder, creating an ethereal effect. The vocalizations were more repeated, minimalist notes like “Om” or “Um da um” in a non-linear development with some echoing of different sections of the chorus.
Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) wrote “Selig Sind Die Toten” with masterful counterpoint in the Baroque style, to a text reinforcing the hope for a better afterlife in heaven. The “43rd Psalm” by Felix Mendelsohn Bartoldy (1809-1847) was a fervent plea to God for help in a difficult time, beautifully harmonized.
“Konus Kale” by Hamid Mardkhanjari (b. 1987) from Iran was a very poetic piece with rhythmic vitality in praise of the medlar fruit, but filled with the longing of someone who was probably in exile.
Jocelyn Hagen (b. 1980) based “I Saw Two Clouds at Morning” on an evocative poem by John Gardiner Brainard.
The last piece of the concert was a transcription for voices of the “Organ Fugue BWV578” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in the Swingle Singers’ version. Bach’s music often begs the question similar to that in juggling, namely what is the limit to how many balls (or themes) you can keep in the air at once (seven for juggling). Bach was the penultimate genius of musical complexity. The audiences then rose to a standing ovation.
As an encore, the chorus performed another piece by Jocelyn Hagen, “Love Light” from poems by e.e. Cummings and Hafiz, celebrating old long-lasting love.
The Halcyon Chorale has certainly developed in a period of barely half a year into a highly professional chorus, with fine, coordinated voices in a repertoire that is delightfully engaging. We certainly will look forward to future performances.
Two local singers are in the group. Katie Tandy is the co-owner of Birdsong Beer and Wine in Hardwick and Mavis MacNeil is chorus director of the middle and high schools at Hazen Union, as well as giving beginning guitar lessons and teaching music theory and composition.