I can’t count how many times (and in how many ways) I’ve told you this over the years, but the wondrous singers of Rider University’s Westminster Choir College are absolutely second to none. Year after year, their select 40-voice chamber choir comes to Spoleto, serving as the resident opera chorus. They also appear in two other programs: Dr. Flummerfelt’s big choral-orchestral extravaganza (with the Charleston Symphony Chorus) and in their own chamber program, led by their current director, Dr. Joe Miller. Friday’s concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul was the first of those.
Leading off was “Lucis Creator Optime,” a richly sonorous sacred number by Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis. The first impression that popped into my head was “delicious dissonance.” Dissonance can indeed be an ugly thing, but not if it is part of a progression towards more “comfortable” harmonies. As such, dissonance can be an essential component of musical beauty, and this composer knew how to use it to wondrous effect.
The following two pieces were glittering sacred gems from the English Renaissance. William Byrd’s “Haec Dies” is a lively polyphonic tumble that had the choir jumpin’ and jivin’ like possessed puppets. Beginning a mini-series of laments was Thomas Weelkes’ “When David Heard,” a keening threnody setting King David’s (the biblical one) reaction to the news of his son’s death. Next came Georgi Dmitrov’s deep and resonant “Umrel Dzerman,” a shattering paean of loss and sorrow from the rich Bulgarian tradition. The last of the laments — Scottish composer James Mac Millan’s “A Child’s Prayer” — was pure comfort music: a gentle song of heavenly welcome inspired by the 1996 Dunblane massacre that claimed the lives of 16 schoolchildren.
The most exotic fare of the evening came with Taiwanese composer Hayu Yudaw’s “Music and Dance of Mountains and Seas,” a charming amalgamation of his homeland’s tribal dialects and melodies. It’s actually a different sort of sacred number, with primitive-sounding shouts and vocal sound effects in praise of local deities on top of pungent Asian melodies and modalities. Miller’s student assistant, I-Chen Yang, conducted this one, and the choir had a ball singing it.
The evening ended with the usual folksy fare. From the Atlantic’s far side came Jonathan Quick’s winning arrangement of Loch Lomond, marred only by the lady behind me as she tried to sing along. Due tribute to old American traditions came with the beloved hymn, “In Bright Mansions Above,” followed by the rockin’, gospel-tinged spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.”
The choir exposed us here to just about every kind of choral sonority there is — from icy, straight-tone whispers to full, golden-throated choral glory.
Westminster Choir Concerts • Spoleto Festival USA • $25, $35 • 1 hour 20 min. • June 6 at 8 p.m. • Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul, 126 Coming St. • (843) 579-3100