Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 5, 2015

Ellington & Dvorak

Berkshire Choral International, Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA
July-August 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Since its founding 34 years ago, Berkshire Choral International has gathered “choristers from the U.S. and abroad to rehearse and perform the great choral-orchestral masterpieces,” according to BCI’s program notes. This summer they presented one concert in Maynooth, Ireland, one in Portland, OR, and three in Sheffield, MA, the last two of which illustrate the wide range of programming BCI now undertakes.

Besides the 150-member BCI Chorus, the first concert, “Music of Duke Ellington and His Era,” featured guest conductor Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of VocalEssence in Minneapolis, pianist Sanford Moore, four vocal soloists, and the David Berger Jazz Orchestra. The first half of the program included spirituals arranged or written by various African-American composers, some familiar (Harry T. Burleigh’s rousing “My Lord, What a Mornin,” popularized by Marian Anderson), others obscure (Nathaniel Dett’s revelatory “Ave Maria”), all performed with loving sensitivity by the mixed chorus and soloists.

The second half was a radio hour of “Duke Ellington on the Air,” complete with hip announcer (a cool Frank Nemhauser as Dr. Jazz), inept field reporter (a hilarious Sean Taylor), and sound effects (a versatile Buzz Moran). But spirited renditions by the singers and the Berger ensemble of excerpts from the Duke’s rarely heard Sacred Concerts and more mainstream Ellingtonia (“Come Sunday,” “Take the A Train”) provided rich musical substance.

The other concert showcased the resident Springfield Symphony Orchestra with the Chorus and four vocal soloists in more traditional BCI fare, Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater.” This moving oratorio in ten short movements sets a thirteenth-century Latin poem about Mary’s grief as she stands at the foot of the cross bearing her son, Jesus. The text must have resonated with the composer, who lost three of his young children while writing the piece.

Erin Freeman
Conductor Erin Freeman, choral director for the Richmond Symphony and Virginia Commonwealth University, led a vibrant account of this characteristically Slavic-flavored score, and the strongly distinctive voices of the solo quartet – soprano Laura Strickling, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Theo Lebow, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas – perfectly complemented each other.

Britten’s “War Requiem” on this season’s opening Sheffield program and the announced repertory for 2016, including Masses by Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, confirm the matchless opportunity that BCI offers to hear great choral works in an idyllic setting.