To Heaven and Back: Taylor and Friends Deliver Choral Magic



A pretty fair crowd of choral music fans gathered at Grace Episcopal Church this afternoon (Sunday) to hear what turned out to be the finest performance of Maurice Duruflé’s radiant Requiem I’ve ever heard. And I wasn’t particularly surprised, since the featured artists were the nationally-recognized Taylor Festival Choir, led by its founding director, Dr. Robert Taylor.

Check out my preview article that appeared in the City Paper’s current edition for some background on this terrific ensemble and its leader — you’ll soon see why I wasn’t surprised at the event’s stupendous quality. The wonderful work of three internationally-known guest artists — mezzo-soprano Sarah Williams, cellist Natalia Khoma, and organist Scott Bennett — were the rich icing on an already delicious cake.

And the music at hand was one of the most sublime works that the 20th Century’s explosion of choral music ever produced. Duruflé left us only a dozen or so finished works (all for choir and/or organ) — but he was an especially picky perfectionist, who destroyed many more manuscripts than he published. Thus everything we have from him is a masterpiece … though none can top the ethereal Requiem.

The Latin Requiem mass (the Catholic mass for the dead) goes back well over a millennium in Europe, having been sung liturgically ever since Gregorian chant emerged during the dark ages. In fact, Duruflé built his Requiem upon these ancient chants. Taylor and company thus chose to begin the concert with glowing renditions of the original chants, revealing the music’s primitive roots and setting the mood for the work to follow.

Primitive or not, chant is NOT easy to sing: modern vocalists are conditioned to sing according to set rhythms — and chant simply has no discernible beat. Delivering it properly requires practice and learning to trust one’s musical instincts. And Duruflé took pains to maintain a smooth, chant-like flow through most of his Requiem. But the process of crafting modern music from such building blocks required precise rhythmic meters. The composer did it by means of a constantly shifting rhythmic palette; in the score, time signatures often come several to the page, such that the typical listener is hard-pressed to follow them. But the net result captures the true feel of chant like no other modern work I know.

And these wonderful singers simply nailed it. Taylor and friends brought the music to life with exemplary precision, vocal sheen, expressive nuance and spiritual intensity. They offered a rich palette of vocal colors and effects, ranging from icy-clear straight tones to lusty choral roars. Dr. Bennett provided mostly subdued, but rock solid support from his organ bench; and Grace’s magnificent instrument — as usual — sounded marvelous. Williams delivered warm, rich singing in her rendition of ‘Pie Jesu,’ her single solo — and Khoma wove a lush cello obbligato around her rich and affecting voice. Sheer magic!

Taylor knew he had something extra-special going on this memorable afternoon. As he (and several of his singers) told me afterwards, he whispered “I don’t want this to end” to them before they sang the final ‘In Paradisum’ (in paradise) movement. His lucky listeners — who were already in musical paradise by then — didn’t want it to end either.

I’ll keep you posted on these artists’ future appearances — because, if you love choral music, you simply MUST hear them. It’s entirely safe to say that Charleston can now lay claim to its own world-class choir.

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