Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus and B-W Men's Chorus at St. John's Cathedral (March 4)
Two of Cleveland’s best choruses performed a thrilling concert on Friday evening, March 4, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland. The choruses, the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus and the Baldwin-Wallace Men’s Chorus, share Frank Bianchi as their director. Mr. Bianchi, a retired public school teacher, is an adjunct faculty member at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music and also serves as Assistant to the Director of Choruses at the Cleveland Orchestra. The cathedral was standing room only for the concert. The cathedral’s reverberant acoustics make almost any choir sound good, but these two groups did not need to hide behind the gauze of a favorable acoustic. Both choruses had excellent choral blend, spot-on pitch (with only a couple of minor exceptions), vital rhythm, and overall musicality that made them both a pleasure.
The B-W Men’s Chorus includes B-W students, faculty and staff, as well as community members by audition. Their program consisted primarily of sacred music, including two works by Chesnokov and Rachmaninoff from the great Russian/Slavic tradition, which showcased the very low basses in the choir (one could almost not hear them, but their foundation rumbled like bedrock below the rest of the chorus). There was also an attractive setting of the Ave Maris Stella text by Diane Loomer. (For unknown reasons, the plainsong chant usually associated with Ave Maris Stella was reproduced in the program notes; however, Ms. Loomer’s work was freely composed with no relationship to the chant.)
The emotional high point of the set was American composer Lee Hoiby’s Last Letter Home, a setting of a letter written by a soldier in Iraq to his family back home, with the instruction that the letter was only to be opened only in the event of his death. The letter arrived a month after he was killed in battle in 2003. The a capella work was sung with beautifully clear diction: every word could be understood. It was a tearjerker. For me, however, the music Hoiby composed did not match up to the emotional quality of the text itself; it was a rather dry, block chordal recitation of the text with little melodic interest. Simplicity would have been fine; it just never got anywhere musically.
Morten Lauridsen’s well known setting of James Agee’s text Sure on This Shining Night was much more interesting. It was given a lyrical performance. William Dawson’s arrangement of the spiritual Soon-Ah Will be Done and Leon Dubinsky’s We Rise Again were rousing closers to the first half of the program.
An interesting aspect to the printed program booklet was the B-W Men’s Chorus’s appeal for funding by selling “sponsorships” of music to be purchased for the chorus and the prices of donations required to purchase the selections. There was even an order form to facilitate the donations. This concert was recorded live and there was a pitch before the concert and during intermission for the audience to purchase copies of the live concert CD.
The B-W Men’s Chorus is an excellent community chorus; The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus (COYC), a group of 120 ninth- through twelfth-graders from all over northeast Ohio, could hold their own among the best professional choruses. Their discipline and musicianship were impeccable; their blend was as one voice. They sang convincing performances of a variety of styles, from Craig Courtney’s gospel-tinged arrangement of Lift Every Voice and Sing (with DeRon McDaniel from Mentor High School as the soloist) to Palestrina’s motet Exultate Deo to the supremely difficult “O Nata Lux” from Morten Lauridsen’s cantata Lux Aeterna.
The “find” of their set was the a capella, new age-ish The Spheres by Manhattan-based Norwegian composer/pianist Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978, whose name was misspelled in the program) — a set of shifting, overlapping chords creating the sensation of a vast space reverberating over time, sung to the text Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy.”) A bit of research after the concert revealed that the piece is making the rounds of the various All State choruses in the United States. (There is a recording available on iTunes of the original string/choral version of The Spheres.) The singers were required to precisely pick their pitches as part of these chords out of nowhere, then to make well-controlled crescendos and diminuendos on long-held notes. Any choral conductor will be aware how difficult that is; these young people were astonishing.
The Chamber Choir of COYC performed Daniel Gawthrop’s moving Sing Me to Heaven. It was artfully performed; only at the last very sustained chord did the sopranos go a bit sharp. It was the only detectable “error” I could identify in this splendid program. The COYC continued with T’Filah, by David Burger. A prayer for peace in Israel and sung in Hebrew, it was composed in an attractive and effective pop-song style. They concluded with another Dawson Spiritual arrangement, Every Time I Feel the Spirit, with Cleveland Heights High student Jared Birks as the soloist.
The two choruses combined, along with audience participation, for the last song on the program, Mack Wilberg’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir arrangement of All Creatures of Our God and King, accompanied by William Shaffer on the cathedral’s Holtkamp pipe organ in the rear balcony. It makes a grand effect in a big space.
These kids in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus are worthy to share the name of The Cleveland Orchestra with their more famous adult counterparts in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. It is heartening to know that in these days of school funding cutbacks and the general lack of interest in the arts that there is still outstanding work being done in the schools by many school choral directors, and that Baldwin-Wallace College is making the opportunity for men of the college and the community to participate in a worthwhile musical experience. Bravo to all concerned, but especially to Frank Bianchi for leading these groups so well.
Timothy Robson is Deputy Director of the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University. He recently retired from Euclid Avenue Congregational Church after a long tenure as its music director.
The B-W Men's Chorus next performs with the B-W Singers on Saturday, March 19 at 8pm at Medina High School Performing Arts Center.