Nashville Chamber Singers
Dec. 7 at Christ the King Catholic Church
Music during this ever longer holiday season is probably much like music during any other seasonsome of it really first rate, much of it really not. But the problem at Christmastime is that even the good stuff gets relentlessly driven toward banality by overuse. It’s as if everybody’s playing the same loop of tape again and again, just starting at different points in the sequence. Some ears just try to tune out until the end of the year passes.
But now and again, something pricks them up again. The program sung by the Nashville Chamber Singers at MTSU last Monday, Dec. 2, and at Christ the King Catholic Church last Saturday evening did just that. The program these two dozen voices presented offered a variegated arrangement of seasonal blossoms, sacred and secular, reaching from the Middle Ages to the present, ranging from scrupulously serious to tongue-in-cheek camp, and deriving from many traditions. Three of the carols were sung in Latvian. Others came from English, Irish, Welsh and New World traditions, including African American. Indeed, the substance of the program was familiar traditional, but its musical texture was not. And the quality of that texture was consistently quite fine.
What makes this all the more noteworthy is the fact that these singers perform without accompaniment, a very difficult thing to do. Singing without an instrumental prop can breed blur: Pitches unanchored tend to sag, and when one person’s pitch starts to sag, other voices adjust and the virus spreads. In fact, this cloudiness is the norm, even in accompanied ensembles. So normal is it that listeners may not even notice until a really good sound comes along. For a cappella choristers, the touchstone ensembles are perhaps the four men known as the Hilliard Ensemble and the four women called the Anonymous Four. (For mixed ensemble sound, the standard might be the Anonymous Four performing with a male sextet called Lionheart.) Each of these voices is a professional quality solo voice that can, without losing its uniqueness, interweave with the others to make a fabulous fabric.
The Nashville Chamber Singers’ fabric is not fabulous, but it is uncommonly goodno small achievement. Their choral sound recalls the United Kingdom’s Cambridge Singers, who are not an a cappella choir. Last Saturday at Christ the King, the Chamber Singers captured the house with their dramatic opening number. The divided choir positioned themselves half at the front and half at the back of the church’s responsive nave, and sang responsively a 16th century Latin hymn. First one half, then the other, then both together sang, filling the space with accurate, blended, graceful, elegant and superbly articulated sound: lightly soaring sopranos, deep resonant basses, all with plenty of breath in reserve.
These voices are capable, and very well prepared. So far as I know, only their director, Angela Tipps, has “perfect pitch”that is, total pitch recall, so that an F-sharp in the ear is always precisely concert-pitch F-sharp. Tipps hums for her singers their starting pitches, but once launched, they proceed with secure discipline. Even when singing dissonances, their intervals remain precisea rare thing. Intervals that commonly clash (e.g., two notes side-by-side on a keyboard) nearly always move singers to “adjust” so as to ease the jangle, or to overcompensate and worsen it. To hear such “grinds” as precisely measured piquancy is like tasting a fine specialty curry.
That comfortable vocal mastery was on show throughout the evening, but especially in the first half, which began with four carols sung in Latin and ended with three sung in Latvian. In between came three in Renaissance English. For the opening three in Latin, the music was 16th century or earlier, including a lovely Gregorian chant version of Hodie Christus natus est. But thereafter, though the tunes and texts were traditional, most of the musical settings were by composers still alive. The Latvian pieces had a richness and subtlety that recalled Eastern Orthodox sonorities, but the settings by English arrangers excitingly and tastefully infused these ancient materials with 20th century dissonance. Especially noteworthy was James McCray’s recovery of the “Ave Maria” text, which is too often subjected to banal smarm. Here, McCray’s sound bodied forth a complex response proper to the claim that a human woman would give birth to the only son of God. In his setting, the claim does not have to be imagined as settled.
The second half of the evening was less audacious in vocal textureperhaps a sagacious tactical gambit. And it included three solos by voices that were not, on their own, commensurate with the superb choral texture they came out of. Even so, this part of the concert contained the evening’s capstone: Michael McGlynn’s arrangement of the traditional Irish “Wexford Carol,” an exquisitely simple telling of the child’s birth in the stable and the visitors who came to see him. The carol’s haunting tune is marked by rare and difficult intervals, but the Chamber Singers rendered them with razor-keen precision. And the harmonic texture was an entrancing configuration of unisons, open octaves, open fifths, dissonant tone clusters, sustained pedal points and brief contrapuntal passagesall interlaced into an audible knot of intense Gaelic spirituality. This was a compositional tour de force masterfully delivered.
The evening drew to a nearly casual close through an all-male, quasi-Trockadero scat-version of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy,” followed by a traditional spiritual and then, as an encore, Ed Lojeski’s fresh, tongue-in-cheek arrangement of the much abused Mel Tormé “Christmas Song” about roasting chestnuts and frosty nose-nipping. This rescue operation was a perfect way to close out a delightfully diverse evening.
For my ears, the key vitalizer of this choral performance was its rhythmic precision. Intonation is essential, of course, and this choir has it. But rhythm is always music’s pulse, whether in monophonic plainsong or in cutting-edge jazzy polyphony, and it may be even harder to master than accurate pitch. An erratic pulse is as unsettling a symptom in music as in a beloved grandfather. The fabric woven by these two dozen voices, often using varied meters, unrolled precisely with evident ease and enjoyment. The result was masterful music that vaporized every smidgen of scroogery. Thanks to the Nashville Chamber Singers, the season became truly one to rejoice in.
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