Imagine being right in the middle of a choir as they lift their voices in song. Melody and harmony bathe you in a glorious, sweet sound that first overtakes you, then lifts you and carries you away.
The 50 voices of the choir literally surrounded the audience for the opening of the Fall Concert of the Northridge Singers on Dec. 3, at the CSUN Performing Arts Center.
As the house lights dimmed, the men took their positions lining the stairway along one side of the auditorium with the women on the opposite side, both facing the audience between them. Conductor Mary Purdy was in the spotlight, center stage.
It was from this unique perspective that, for the first two pieces, the audience was treated to the rare experience of the hearing the choir as if they were actually part of it. It was something quite amazing.
The opening numbers were “O Music,” by sixteenth century composer Paul Peuerl, and “Ye Shall Have Song,” by American composer Randall Thompson. The voices were at times in four-part harmony; at others, one section would sing a line and another would answer in call-and-response fashion.
The intricate counter melodies were easily heard from our vantage point in the middle of the choir. After this dramatic opening, the choir went on to the stage for the balance of the evening.
The musical program was divided into three sections: Songs in Praise of Music, Songs of the Season and Songs of the World.
Overall, it was a very eclectic mix of music. The first section of the program continued with “Venite,” “Ascendamus Ad Montem” Domini by Baroque organist and composer Jacob Handl. Next was Chantez by French composer Jules Massenet. Student conductor Josh Elson conducted this lively romantic work. An energetic Kentaro Sato, a CSUN graduate student, conducted Brahms’ Warum based on a text by Goethe. Both student conductors are also members of the Northridge Singers.
The next piece was “Cantate Domino, Benedicamus Domino” by David Childs, associate professor of Choral Studies at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School. Jan Sanborn and Nancy Ruczynski accompanied the choir at the piano, along with Richard Hoffman on trumpet. Child’s piece was very rousing, characterized by playful dance-like rhythms.
The highlight of this first section was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music” based on a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Originally written in 1938 to be performed by sixteen singers, the Northridge Singers used sixteen soloists and the choir to simulate that first performance.
The first half of the program concluded with Theron Kirk’s setting of “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” based on the text by poet John Dryden. Kirk used melody, rhythm and harmony to bring out the meaning of Dryden’s poem which, as the program notes explained, “extols music and the part that the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia, played in making vocal music the most heavenly.”
At one point during the program, Purdy commented that one of the biggest challenges she faced in working with the group this semester was deciding on what music to perform. The music she picked was from a wide variety of periods and styles, traditional to modern, folk to the avant-garde.
In addition, many of the pieces were in foreign languages, French, German, Latin and Romanian to name a few. The talent and hard work of the students was evident in their ability to master such a broad range of difficult material. It was quite a tribute to Purdy’s skill as a teacher and conductor that she was able to realize such an ambitious program. From both ensemble and conductor was an obvious love of music and joy in its performance.
After a brief intermission, the program resumed. The second half began with three “Songs of the Season.” The first, O Nata Lux was a sweet, beautiful a cappella motet by contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen. Next, Jan Sanborn providing a nice contrast by playing her solo piano arrangement of the French carol Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella.
This was followed by the tuneful, up-tempo piece The Three Kings by British-born Canadian composer Healey Willan in which the choir emulates a huge pipe organ.
The final segment of the concert was “Songs of the World.” This section began with Kasa mie La Gaji by contemporary Venezuelan composer Alberto Grau. The title, which means, “the earth is tired,” explains the purpose of this dramatic composition that was written to champion the cause of environmental protection.
In avant-garde style, the voices imitate the hissing, creaking and groaning of the earth under environmental strains due to the mismanagement of its natural resources by humans.
Among the other songs of the world in this segment were the more light-hearted Eloquence by Haydn and an arrangement of the fiddle tune, Bile Them Cabbages Down, by Mack Wilberg.
The grand finale of the evening was the powerful gospel arrangement of Music Down in My Soul by Moses Hogan. After performing for two hours, the choir was still energetic and enthusiastic, singing the last piece with as much energy and passion as the first. As the program noted, it truly was a “fitting conclusion to a concert that started with songs about music.”
Danel O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com.