The UW Choral Union in rehearsal.
In another display of her enterprise, Beverly Taylor has put aside the usual holiday-season compulsions for the autumn concert by the UW Choral Union to give Madison audiences a chance to hear some examples of mostly recent choral work, with absolutely no Christmas connections whatsoever.
Rather than Nativity whoop-de-doo, the theme is rather that of consolation for loss, at least in the two larger of the four selections offered. These were each prefaced by shorter pieces.
Opening the concert, which debuted Saturday night in the UW Humanities Building's Mills Hall, is a wonderful piece from 1920 by Ralph Vaughan Williams: the Psalm-motet "O clap your hands," for chorus, brass and organ (with strings slipped in) -- just right for a rousing start.
Opening the second half was an a cappella setting by Eric Whitacre of a translated poem, "Water Night," by Octavio Paz. This rather murky poem is given a pretentious but almost equally murky setting, testing a chorus's diction capacities. This was conducted by a graduate assistant, Russell Adrian. Maybe it was an inherent problem with the music, but his enforcement of diction standards seemed a bit below those of Taylor.
Of the two major works, the first was composed by Dominick Argento on a commission from the National Cathedral but as a tribute to his wife, who died in 2006. It is a tribute, but also a kind of consolatory catharsis. Appropriate to the Episcopal patronage, Argento cast his work, titled "Evensong: Of Love and Angels," on the model of the Anglican Vespers service. Accordingly, there are a litany and three choral movements, amongst which Argento has chosen to include a spoken scripture passage and then a "sermon" on it, oddly set as a long, rambling solo for soprano. Including such verbal elements may not have been so wise. Above all, the long sermon, and a later prayer meant for a boy treble but sung by a vibratoless soprano, operate in a high register where words are extensively swallowed up, and not just as a fault of the singers.
Much of Argento's choral writing is strong, if sometimes tight: one a cappella psalm is particularly fine, but the finale, somewhat in the style of Benjamin Britten, is a bit of a blur. The orchestral writing is consistently accomplished and, in the case of a "Meditation" interlude, genuinely lovely and touching.
It is a different story with the final work. Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) has earned a high reputation for choral writing, and truly he is one of the few composers of our time who can make a chorus sound grand and beautiful, rather than strained and tormented. His "Lux Aeterna" is one of his best-known pieces, and deservedly so. It, too, served as consolation to the composer, amid the terminal illness of his mother. The texts are all in Latin: two passages from the service for the dead (from which the title comes) frame passages from other liturgical sources. The choral writing throughout is simply a joy: reverent but expressive, and richly textured (the one a cappella section simply heavenly), while the delicate orchestral writing is perfectly in balance with the chorus.
Taylor has always worked hard at diction, and her achievement is really extraordinary. Despite the huge size of the chorus (almost 165 singers), the diction is wonderfully clear (as long as the composers didn't put up too many difficulties).
The program is repeated at 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 11. And down the road in the spring will be that great blockbuster, Verdi's Requiem.