Review: ECSO Chorus shines in a grand musical epic

New London - The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada introduced the final concert of the season at the Garde Arts Center Saturday night by explaining that its unifying theme was different composers' impressions of the sea.

"For all of us," he said, "It's the common denominator as human beings."

But by concert end, it was clear that it is music, not the sea, that unites us.

Saturday was the annual concert featuring the ECSO Chorus, led by Choral Director Mark Singleton, and the chorus has never sounded better. The chorus and a pair of soloists, baritone David Pershall and soprano Amanda Hall, were featured in Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony," an epic, 60-minute oratorio drawing verses from Walt Whitman. And the performance was as sweeping, ecstatic and transcendent as Whitman's verse.

This symphony is a vast work in every way, and unlike many oratorios, the chorus is often incorporated as a section of the orchestra, sharing sectional interplay with the winds or brass or strings. Since this orchestra is fully professional, the equanimity with which the amateur chorus shared the spotlight was all the more impressive.

"A Sea Symphony" was the second oratorio based on Whitman verse written by the then-38-year-old Vaughn Williams, and it was an immediate hit at its 1910 debut. The verses were gleaned from various poems in "Leaves of Grass," and the vastness of sea itself becomes a central metaphor for Whitman's delirious vision of the oneness of life.

Opening in full sail, with fanfares and a choral explosion, "Behold the sea itself!," the symphony was anything but bombastic. It has its huge sonic moments, but Shimada drew on its contrasts, like the sea itself, from storm to calm and back. In the opening section, when the female choral voices softly echo "Token of all brave captains" after grand declamations by all, the bar was set high for the musicianship that followed.

The soloists were of fine voice and strong presence. Baritone Pershall's part was that of the navigator, leading the key textual moments with a strong yet unforced clarity. Soprano Hall was given the most transcendent of the musical moments, sweetly summarizing the gently tapering finale with a lyricism to contrast the power.

But the 80-voice chorus itself, augmented appropriately enough with eight voices from the Coast Guard Academy Glee Club, was fully textured. Sections of the score call for powerful unisons (one wag at the time of the works' premier said a good performance should induce a sore throat), yet many passages call for complex counterpoint and part singing. Through it all, except for a few moments of the scherzo, the chorus sang with surety, finesse and musicianship.

Shimada had his work load doubled, with the choral parts added to the large orchestra, which included an array of bass winds and two harps, and you'd think he didn't break a sweat - if he hadn't mopped his brow between several movements.

"A Sea Symphony" was a grand triumph, the finest ECSO choral concert this writer has attended over the years. And it needed to be to outshine the first half's moving performance of Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes.

The suite was crafted from orchestral passages of Britten's 1945 opera "Peter Grimes," a dark and brooding tale set in a small fishing village. Britten was raised on the coast and wrote "my life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast."

The music is both seductive and ominous, and like the sea itself, full of crosscurrents, eddies and swells. Particularly in the second section, "Sunday Morning," with its irregular meters and sonic oddities, Shimada drew committed and powerful performances amid its subtleties.

Prior to the concert, the audience gave a rousing ovation for clarinetist Ruth Ann Heller, a bright presence in the music scene here for decades, who was performing her final concert with the ECSO after 40 years - and five music directors!

But at its end, all kudos went to Choral Director Singleton and the dedication to excellence of his singers.

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