The last week has been a flurry of music and activity – the symphony was in the hall rehearsing Rossini, Brahms, and Strauss on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for three performances: our annual High School Young People’s Concert on Friday morning, and Classical Series concerts on Friday and Saturday night. Also on Saturday, we held the first round of our annual Curb Concerto Competition – sixteen teenage instrumentalists competed for cash prizes and the chance to perform a concerto movement with the Nashville Symphony on the stage of Laura Turner Hall! – and on Sunday afternoon we held the competition’s finals. This coming Saturday is our first ever auditions for our new program Accelerando. It’s been a very busy time of year for the Education staff at the Nashville Symphony!
After the final round of the competition was over on Sunday, after photos had been taken and I said goodbye to the finalists and their families, I dashed off a quick email to the symphony’s publicist with details for the press release and then made my way across town to West End United Methodist Church for a special late afternoon concert.
The music program at West End United Methodist Church presents two concerts each year in addition to their weekly music at services on Sunday mornings – this was the second I have attended. The first was a beautiful performance of the Brahms Requiem nearly a year ago – which I wrote about here – and for which West End Minister of Music Matthew Phelps won the American Prize in Conducting, School & Community Chorus Division 2015.
After a brief introduction by Dr. Phelps, the concert opened with English composer Edward Elgar’s limpid and melancholy Elegy for Strings, Op. 58, composed in 1909. It was an unusual but beautiful opening to the concert, and a piece rarely heard live – I only know it from recordings – more often if a short piece for strings alone by Elgar is programmed for a concert, it is the fascinating and prescient Sospiri, Op. 70, composed on the eve of World War I in 1914. The small consort of strings played the Elegy with warmth and sensitivity.
Following the Elgar, West End’s Associate Minister of Music and Organist Andrew Risinger performed the Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). (Andrew is also the organist for the Nashville Symphony.) The sprawling, single movement concerto in seven contrasting sections showcased Andrew’s fine playing and the church’s magnificent 136 rank Moller organ to great effect. West End UMC’s organ is justly famous among organists and aficionados of organ music – it’s the largest in Tennessee. This year, Andrew celebrates twenty years as West End UMC’s organist.
After the organ concerto, the choirs filed into the chancel and the sixteen-piece string section seated across the transept was joined by woodwinds and brass for the concert’s final piece. Half of the orchestra’s players were members of the symphony – augmented by other musicians from the community – and the ensemble sounded very fine indeed in the lively acoustics of the old stone church.
Both the Chancel and Sanctuary choirs combined to perform American composer Morten Lauridsen‘s Lux Aeterna, a Requiem written in 1997 after the death of the composer’s mother. Lauridsen is one of the most-performed American composers in the world, but although I was familiar with some of his music before Sunday – most notably his setting of O Magnum Mysterium, which exists in several different versions and is popular with both choral and instrumental ensembles – I had never heard Lux Aeterna performed before.
So I was unprepared for the emotional potency of the work. This winter, my daughter began singing in the Sanctuary Choir, which Andrew also directs – Matthew directs the Chancel Choir and directed the combined performance of the Lauridsen. Watching her face as she sang the opening chorus with the combined choirs of more than 90 singers, with a fine orchestra, in the beautiful sanctuary of West End UMC late on a Sunday afternoon, after a very tiring and intense weekend running a concerto competition, was a touching and almost overwhelming experience for me personally.
It was beautiful to say the least.
The orchestra is tacit (does not play) through long stretches of counterpoint in several parts of the work, which though written in five distinct movements, is performed as one continuous whole. Lauridsen’s writing is contemporary and tonal and uses medieval and renaissance models, in some moments reminiscent of the music of Arvo Pärt, in others more literal in evoking the medieval plainchant on which some of the themes are based – especially in the material given to the tenor section of the choir.
The intonation of the combined choirs was excellent and while the overall sound of the group was not “straight tone” or nearly without vibrato as exemplified in the English cathedral style of singing, the vibrato of individual singers within the ensemble did not detract or dominate the sound in any way. The tone of each section of the choir was very “clean” and individual parts in counterpoint passages had clarity and independence. The balance with the orchestra was very good from where I sat and always felt appropriate to the music, the setting, and the performance.
There is something I find particularly moving about a choral work of this scale on these (Requiem) texts, especially one in which there are no featured soloists – the only other example I know is the Requiem in C minor by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), which was popular with 19th century composers and audiences but has fallen out of the canon of frequently performed choral masterworks over the last century. Without individual singers as a focus of attention, and the sound and atmosphere of the music deriving from the less personal yet intimate sound of the choir, the music has a unique depth and power to reach the heart of the listener.