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Choral and Vocal
TRAVELING CHORISTERS SO CO DEBUT IN TWO BIG CANTATAS
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Saturday, June 25, 2022
Choral and Vocal
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by Pamela Hicks Gailey
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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
Berkshire Choral International / Saturday, June 25, 2022
Katherine FitzGibbon, conductor; Aundi Moore, soprano; Damien Geter, bass-baritone; Gretchen Yanover, cello; Santa Rosa Symphony

Conductor Katherine FitzGibbons

TRAVELING CHORISTERS SO CO DEBUT IN TWO BIG CANTATAS

by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Saturday, June 25, 2022

Berkshire Choral International (BCI) is a travel-loving chorister's dream. Drawing its membership nationwide, it is headquartered in the Western Massachusetts Berkshires region and travels to destinations for a week of rehearsals, sightseeing, and performing. What makes this group different however, is that it exists only as a one-off touring ensemble. There is no permanent conductor or choir. Rather, concerts are planned for particular and attractive destinations, with professional conductors and soloists engaged. Then choristers register and pay tuition for the week-long tour. Participants are unique to each particular tour, although many are "frequent flyers.” The group gets the music mailed in advance to prepare, and then each participant travels to the destination where a week of intense rehearsals culminate in a performance. In spare time there are field trips for sightseeing (Sonoma County wine tasting of course).

Coincidentally, I have a Boston area friend who has joined in many of these tour/workshop/performances in the past and loved the experience.

Sonoma State's Weill Hall June 25 was this summer's venue and Sonoma County's Wine Country the destination. The program was short yet full, the chorus sizable at 90 singers, and a delightful surprise came in the form of the guest collaboration with our own Santa Rosa Symphony. The reason it was a surprise is that there was no printed program, just a slip of paper with a scan code which unfortunately did not work with my phone. I don't know what the connectivity problem was, other than I was not the only one who could not access it. Since paperless programs are trending, hopefully glitches like this can be fixed.

Katherine FitzGibbon, based at Lewis and Clark College, was the commanding leader of two very big and demanding pieces, with the first half consisting of a dramatic new work in five movements by Portland State’s Damien Geter titled Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow. The second half featured the even more dramatic Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem. These works were well-matched with complementing texts and musical intensity. The texts of both center around political and social troubles of the world, and Mr. Geter wrote his cantata to memorialize the losses incurred by the pandemic and other societal crises. The third movement is entitled "Breathe,” and depicts an emergency room episode. There is a video performance of this movement on YouTube depicting this dreaded scenario.

The Vaughan Williams cantata dates from 1936, written at the peak of the Great Depression in the uneasy peacetime period between World Wars I and II, and is a huge piece in five movements, and scored for full orchestra and mixed chorus, soprano and baritone soloists. Three poems of Walt Whitman ("Beat! Beat! Drums!,” "Reconciliation,” and "Dirge for Two Veterans,” with selected bible verses, are sung by the baritone. The Latin text of the "Agnus Dei" portion of the Requiem Mass is sung by the soprano, with the words "Dona Nobis Pacem" interspersed throughout the piece. The chorus also functions as reciter/narrator.


Mr. Geter's Cantata makes many powerful statements and seems inspired in format by the Vaughan Williams, as it is scored for a capella chorus, soprano and bass solo, and cello continuo only. The composer based the work on Bach's well-loved Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (weeping, lamentation, worry, despair - BWV 12), and also incorporated three familiar spirituals. The first movement "Fear" is actually a tweaked version of the Bach. The second movement, "The Prayer,” is an arrangement of "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” and the third movement is the above-mentioned "Breathe.” "The Resolve" (fourth movement) is an arrangement of "There is a Balm in Gilead" and "By and By,” and the fifth, "Hope,” is a setting of the Walt Whitman poem "Continuities.” Gretchen Yanover’s cello playing provided continuo for all five movements.

I'm always excited to hear new music and wish I could say this was a memorable experience. Unfortunately, in spite of all the creative and performing talent on the stage, it was a problematic performance that never fully came together. Mr. Geter's compositional style has much to admire, and is complex, thickly layered, and features prominently a very busy continuo part, perhaps too busy, yet superbly executed by Ms. Yanover. It is a clearly challenging piece to perform rhythmically perfectly, and needed more rehearsal. Intonation was a significant issue in several places, perhaps because of the substantial distance between chorus and soloists, and the all-masked chorus was sonically dampened. There were times when the sound was also uncertain, pitchy and not cleanly together with the cello and/or soloists.

Situating the chorus in the loft was an unfortunate choice because it made for too much separation between them and the conductor, continuo and soloists, who were on the floor. Although Weill Hall's acoustics are beautiful, there was sense that the chorus could not hear well enough. They should have been on the floor too. Set up for the orchestra could have easily taken place during intermission.

Mr. Geter was the powerfully resonant bass soloist, and was joined by soprano Aundie Marie Moore who sang with a gorgeous, sympathetic sound and a highly expressive presence. Both were marvelous protagonists and gave moving performances.

The second half of the program was exemplary. Without a printed program to supply details, a fantastic sixty-piece orchestra sprang into action and I wondered who in the world is this great pickup orchestra? Are they also traveling with the chorus? Or are they locals? Turns out, as I later found out, it was the Santa Rosa Symphony! And likewise, just like that, the chorus now sounded like I had expected them to sound - confident, powerful and responsive, and well balanced with the orchestra, with nary a hint of pitchiness or uncertainty. The conductor provided inspiring leadership through the many moments, of balance and phrasing. Ms. Moore and Mr. Geter soared in their respective solo work, and the result was a first rate performance of this lesser known gem.

Possibly due to the concert being scheduled during the university's summer break, attendance was sparse, with the orchestra seating less than half full and no one in the balconies. It’s regrettable that SSU choral and vocal music students weren't able to be present en masse.





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