Saturday's Westminster Choir program to be repeated on June 10 under the direction of Dr. Joe Miller offered a gourmet smorgasbord of choral delights at the packed-to-capacity Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul. These choice events usually sell out well in advance, and there's a good reason for that. Charleston is a city of rabid choral music nuts: a fan base created largely over the 30-plus years during which these amazing singers have been spoiling us rotten in their annual Spoleto pilgrimages to the Holy City. And we Chucktowners have learned — often the hard way — to book our tickets very early: it's the only way to beat our out-of-town visitors to the punch. Just yesterday, I witnessed a lot of bitter disappointment as bunches of wannabe attendees got turned away at the door.
The program, as usual, was a lush and thrilling assortment of choral gems that were bound to please. The opening, and perhaps the most unusual, number was "Knowee," a rather primitive-sounding piece by down-under composer Stephen Leek that opened with a protracted episode of "overtone singing" (also known as throat-singing): a rare and rather strange-sounding vocal technique that produces audible overtones on top of the foundation notes. You hear it in various Far East cultures, as in the low chanting of Tibet's Buddhist monks. In Australia, it's practiced by the Aborigines, and you also hear it in the sound of their native instrument, the didgeridoo. Based on an ancient aboriginal legend, the piece recounts the four sun gods frantically looking for their missing children. A quartet of fine female soloists played the sun god roles, wandering individually amid the pews while holding lanterns, crying out for their offspring over the choral textures all the while. Amazing stuff!
The second selection of the opening set was "Hor che 'l Ciel e la Terra," by the early Italian mega-master Claudio Monteverdi. Supported by a fine pianist and two excellent violinists from the choir's ranks, the number was a prime example of Monteverdi's seminal role in kick-starting the Baroque era. Its passionate outpourings mirrored a common theme of the day: the grief and frustration of unrequited love.
The second set was a stand-alone work: modern American choral master Morten Lauridsen's ubiquitous "O Magnum Mysterium," illuminating a popular text that offers wondering reflection on the mystical irony of the blessed Christ-child being born among animals in a stable. Thousands of choirs all over the world cherish this luminous and spiritually intense Christmas music, and the Westminster singers showed us why.
Next came Trois Chansons Bretonnes, a three-piece set of lovely and evocative songs by Dutch tunesmith Henk Badings that are highly impressionistic in nature. The first of them, "Night at Sea," was particularly effective. These were followed by two lovable love songs. The first was "Flower of Beauty," just about the only work we have from Englishman John Clements. Then we heard "Newlyweds," a touching and lyrical number by composer (and former WC member) Nathan Jones that is set to a poem by S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth.
The opening piece of the next set — "Fatise Kolo," an exuberant arrangement of a Serbian wedding dance by Ivan Markovicwas — was also wedding-inspired, but it conveyed an altogether different mood. Then we got a winning arrangement of "Shenandoah," the classic Appalachian folk song. The final scheduled work was "So I'll Sing with my Voice," a bumptious and energetic spiritual arrangement by Italian-American composer Dominick Argento that finished things off with a bang.
Our clamoring standing-O prompted a winning encore: "They Say that Falling in Love Is Wonderful" from the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun in a soft and gently jazzy arrangement. And that still wasn't all: our singers sent us on our way with their patented encore (at least since Miller took over), the often-heard church blessing "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," complete with its radiant sevenfold amen.