Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 2, 2024

REVIEW: Berkshire Choral International, "Vaughan Williams"

UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center, MA
June 29, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

Joe Miller
Joe Miller, Professor of Conducting & Director of Choral Studies at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, led the 130-member BCI chorus, baritone Emmett O’Hanlon, soprano Laura Strickling, and a freelance ensemble of area professional musicians in two masterpieces by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for an evening of choral-orchestral magic.   

Since 1982, BCI has gathered experienced amateur singers from across the USA during the summer for weeklong intensive rehearsals in various American and international venues, culminating in a public performance at the end of the week. While still based in the Berkshires, this was their only local concert in 2024.
The program opened with “Five Mystical Songs,” which Vaughan Williams wrote in 1911 for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival and based on four poems by George Herbert (two songs set different verses of the same poem). O’Hanlon’s supple baritone suited the music’s radiant beauty. The chorus was hauntingly expressive in the wordless final bars of the cycle’s sublime centerpiece, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” and ardently ringing in the jubilant closing “Antiphon.” Miller and the orchestra offered sumptuous support throughout.

Then came a thrilling account of the composer’s first symphony, which he called “A Sea Symphony,” because the texts in all four movements are selections from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” which compare a sea voyage to the human journey through life. Written between 1903 and 1909, the hour-long piece was first played at the Leeds Festival in 1910.

The first movement, “A Song for All Seas, All Ships,” was urgently dramatic, and the chorus, O’Hanlon, and Strickling all sang their solo passages with heroic heft. O’Hanlon was mesmerizing in the quiet second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone.” The chorus (without soloists) was virtuosic and nimble in the explosive third movement, “The Waves.” The finale, “The Explorers,” alternated exhilaration with yearning and closed quietly on the lines “O farther, farther, farther sail!” Miller kept the huge ensemble of musicians in sonorous balance.  

The warm and spacious acoustic of the Fine Arts Center’s Tillis Performance Hall showcased the clear enunciation and carefully modulated phrasing of the singers along with the impassioned playing of the instrumentalists. Full texts were provided in the digital program.

This concert was a glorious feast for the ears of all choral music lovers.