by Lindsay Koob
Happily, I was able to make it to my first Piccolo event Saturday afternoon. Trust me when I say — from long experience — that Spoleto USA’s little-sister festival consistently manages to attract quite a few world-class acts in all areas of the performing arts, and yesterday’s performers fall into that exalted category.
Antioch is a fabulous New Jersey-based professional mini-chamber choir (12 voices) that’s been performing in Piccolo’s generally excellent Spotlight on the Art of Choral Music Series for years. I first heard them here a few years back, and have been looking for a chance ever since to again wallow in their sweet sonorities and relish anew their rare choral artistry.
Perhaps the most revealing thing I can tell you about the ensemble’s quality is that about half of its members are alumni of the vaunted Westminster Choir, Spoleto USA's world-famous resident chorus. Their appearance at St. Philip’s Church offered a winning array of mostly a cappella choral classics, both ancient and modern, plus some really cool jazz.
They got going with a set of five Italian Madrigals: secular choral confections from the late renaissance that tend to celebrate things like the beauties of springtime and the joys of romance, or to bitterly mourn lost or unrequited love. Among others, we enjoyed a frolicsome number about beautiful shepherdesses (lots of “fa-la-la’s”) by Giovanni Gastoldi, a keenly mournful jilted suitor’s lament by Cipriano de Rore, and an especially gorgeous item about love’s ecstasy by Claudio Monteverdi,– with its adroit canonic layering of vocal lines. Next came the jazz numbers: three of them, all by rising composer Greg Jasperse. We heard "Oh How Beautiful, this Finely Woven Earth," an original composition, followed by a lovely arrangement of the popular song "Fields of Gold." The best-known piece was "VoiceDance," a happy wordless vocal romp that recalls the art of scat-singing. And all of it is real jazz, both in terms of rhythm and harmony, yet the composer achieves classically brainy levels of sophistication and refinement that would make these pieces at home in any serious choral event. With them, Antioch revealed an entirely different sort of vocal warmth and laid-back expressiveness.
Finally, we were treated to the evening’s true novelties. The first was "Though Love be a Day," the world premiere performance of a cunningly crafted E.E. Cummings setting by Matthew Brown, a young composer who studied with American choral icon Morten Lauridsen. Brown, as explained by founding director Joshua Copeland, sent the piece to Antioch after discovering them on YouTube. The singers, loving the music, ran with it, and for good reason: it’s a sweet and warmly accessible work, offering ingenious harmonic structure and direct emotional appeal.
The final selection was The City and the Sea, a new five-piece cycle (again, setting poems by E.E. Cummings) by American choral wizard Eric Whitacre. Antioch recently delivered in its world premiere performance, and they’ll be giving its European premiere in an upcoming tour. Not just any old choir gets to do this composer’s premieres. The music, like the poetry it sets, tends to be whimsical and wondering, almost like nursery rhymes. Whitacre’s usual inventive tonal structures beguiled our ears, and the piano accompaniment was downright startling, consisting mostly of tone-clusters that enveloped the choral sonorities in a kind of surreal harmonic haze.
Bravo to accompanist Christine Chang for pulling this very tricky material off splendidly. The happy crowd’s spontaneous standing O got us a sweet encore: "Sleep," a well-known earlier piece from Whitacre, a soft and sensual marvel in which the composer makes a truly beautiful thing of dissonance. Antioch’s interpretations glowed and glittered throughout, offering melting tonal beauty, dead-on intonation, exquisitely nuanced phrasing, tremendous dynamic range and faultless technique.
This concert will continue to haunt me for days. And to think: this sterling ensemble is but one of many reasons why music lovers should take Piccolo Spoleto very seriously. Afterward, I was touched to witness the reunion of director Copeland with his revered mentor, Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, former Westminster Choral Director (and still Spoleto USA’s cherished choral director), who had come to bear proud witness to the consummate artistry of his protégés. What a joy it must be for him to count artists like these among his life’s work.