Bellissima presents Body, Mind, Spirit, Voice

Williamsburg Choral Guild: McCullough & Brahms

Williamsburg Choral Guild: Mozart's Requiem
The Choir of the Queen's College, Oxford
Bellissima's Hope Springs Eternal


Nevsky Vocal Ensemble

      This group of six singers came to Virginia Beach from St. Petersburg, Russia and gave a stunning a capella performance of songs ranging from Russian folk music to jazzy scat vocalese. The group is named for the Neva River which flows through St. Petersburg.

      So, when was the last time you heard a basso cantante voice, or heard it featured in a number of songs in a small ensemble? Such a rare and beautiful instrument was discovered as part of the Nevsky Vocal Ensemble and belongs to an articulate and charming young singer, Alexander Gerasimov.

      Baritone Sergei Shishkin leads the group, the tenor is Dmitry Skazhenik, the mezzo-soprano Anastasia Meshchanova, second soprano is Nadezhda Issaeva, and at the top of the vocal range, first soprano Olga Moskvina. The balance and rapport of this group was truly wonderful, with precision timing and beautiful, clear tones. The training of these professionals allowed them to literally do anything and everything a vocal group can do. We purchased the group's excellent CD, On the troika with the bells, which includes many of the pieces we heard live. Their website, , contains audio clips of many of their concert pieces.

      A further word on basso cantante. Literally "singing bass" in Italian, it's defined as a bass singer with a light and high voice. The voice we heard had a wide bass range - the top was light and lyrically sweet in tone and yet at the bottom of his voice there were tones reminiscent of a basso profundo, but even here the tone was sweet.

      Once again, Prince of Peace director of music Oksana Lutsyshyn has enriched the musical life of our area. The Nevsky Vocal Ensemble appeared at Prince of Peace on Sunday, December 7, 2003.

Belissima presents Body, Mind, Spirit, Voice

      With a membership of 26 women vocalists, Belissima presents two sets of concerts each season at various locations. We saw them at St.Aidan's Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach on March 14, 2004.

      The first two pieces were preformed a cappella: Sing a New Song in a peppy arrangement by Michael Mendoza and All that Hath Life Breath Praise Ye the Lord. These began the section Songs of the Spirit.

      A premiere performance of a setting of Psalm 40 by Deborah Carr, the group's director and conductor, featured Kelly Poole, with her rich contralto voice, as soloist. The passionate setting, accompanied by bells, was fine with an interesting use of vocal sonorities. An interesting arrangement of There is a Balm in Gilead by William Dawson used part singing effectively and featured Kelly Poole and Iris Julian.

      The second section, Songs of the Mind, included Vincent Persichetti's Winter Cantata, made up of three songs: Fallen Leaves, Gentlest Fall of Snow and So Deep. This twentieth-century music used dissonant tones effectively to paint moods and the organ created flute and xylophone sounds as accompaniments. This was perhaps my favorite piece.

      Ralph Vaughan Williams' Whither Must I Wander? has a folk song text with an English hymn tune and ends on a minor key. It was followed by James Mulholland's Caledonian Air. The group sang in a Scottish brogue and was accompanied by bells and piano.

      Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser (If my monk would dance) by Donald Patriquin has a happy rhythm and was accompanied by wood blocks and piano. Christopher Marshall's Minoi, Minoi, with its laid-back dance rhythm, sways gently. The singers had a good time creating these whimsical tunes in the section titled Songs of the Body.

      Drumming was an important part of the closing section, Songs of the Voice. The lilting dance rhythms of Mouth Music by Delores Keane/John Faulkner used nonsense words to weave a charming web of a choral song. In Joan Gregoryk's Kalinka, the opening tempo accelerates for drum and voice as the high sopranos effectively explore the top of their range. The ending is dramatic and intense. Bill Henderson's When I Sing is about feeling as light as spring while singing; listening created the same feeling in me.

      This non-profit community-based group sings for the love of music and offers their gift of excellent choral singing. Your support, both by attending performances and making a contribution would be much appreciated. If you wish to audition or want more information, call the Board President Joan Pickett at 481-7332. Watch the Artsong Update calendar for up-coming concerts.

Williamsburg Choral Guild Sings McCullough and Brahms

      Our first experience of the Williamsburg Choral Guild was a most pleasant one. The occasion was Veterans Day, November 11, 2004, when they performed Donald McCullough's Holocaust Cantata, Songs from the Camps and the Third Movement of Brahms' Requiem in a program entitled In Memoriam in the newly refurbished auditorium at Bruton High School.

      Material for the Holocaust Cantata, both spoken and sung, was gathered by Mr. McCullough from the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and was first performed at the Kennedy Center in 1998.

      The readers and soloists were drawn from the Williamsburg community. The Guild, in its twenty-ninth season, has eighty-five singers who devote time, talent and money to make these programs happen and are led by the very able Jay BeVille, Artistic Director and Conductor.

      Holocaust Cantata began with a mournful sound from the solo cello. The song, The Prisoner Rises, introduces us to the idea of starvation in the camps, "The time so hopeless, so full of dread..." Of trains that haul away the beloved from the once peaceful homeland that is now desecrated. But not all of the songs are sad. A line from Song of the Polish Prisoners reads "The strength of our spirits will conquer the tortures, the suffering cannot o'er power us" and is typical of the other theme that is woven into this tapestry of sadness.

     McCullough has arranged the music he discovered in his research into simple settings accessible to chorus and audience. Interspersed with the songs are poems read in English, with translations by Denny Clark, that unfold the details of this horrible part of our human history. We must be vigilant as a race to remember this time. Darfur, Abu Graib and daily events in Iraq show mankind is still capable of great self-destruction.

      In the Holocaust Cantata the chorus did an excellent job. The emotion was subdued in the music, a sad remembrance to honor the memory of those who are lost to us. By contrast, the music of the Brahms Requiem has a visceral power that showed the ability of the chorus to good advantage. The theatricality of this piece communicates in the music. Here, the German words (translations were given in the program) are illuminated by the music.

      For more than ten years Donald McCullough was a major influence on choral music in Tidewater. After studying choral conducting and taking a Masters Degree in vocal performance at Southern Methodist University, in 1982 he moved to Hampton Roads, taking the position of organist and choirmaster at First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk. In 1984 he founded Virginia Pro Musica, later renamed the McCullough Chorale (now the Virginia Chorale). His talents and enthusiasm led to many exceptional choral concerts and in 1990 he created the Virginia Symphony Chorus. His last season here was 1994, after which we lost him to Washington, D.C., where his creativity continues to thrive.

Williamsburg Choral Guild Sings Mozart

      Mozart's (1756-1791) Missa Brevis in d minor, KV65, was written in Salzburg on January 14, 1769 and first performed shortly afterward. Mozart turned 13 years old on January 27 of that year. As with the Requiem, K.626, it is written for four soloists and four of Tidewater's finest singers regaled us with the beauty of Mozart's music and their voices. The soprano was Lisa Edwards-Burrs, the mezzo-soprano, Lisa Relaford Coston, the tenor, Tracey Welborn and the bass, Branch Fields.

      Jay BeVille conducted a superb performance of these glorious religious pieces on March 7, 2005 in the beautiful, spacious new St. Bede's Catholic Church in Williamsburg. In the Missa brevis Mozart's youthful exuberance shines through the dark key of d minor. The chorus sounded grand. We had been warned about the acoustics at this huge, round venue but the sound reflective panels behind the chorus put the sound exactly where it needed to be. In the Missa brevis the singers are accompanied by string orchestra and organ played by Mildred Andrews Young. The Choral Guild's 2004-2005 season is dedicated to the memory of her late husband, Robert Young.

      When Mozart died on December 5, 1791, he left the Requiem unfinished, though much of it had been written. There were fragments of each movement, especially those of the vocal score. Mozart had borrowed select musical motives from Handel's funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, HWV 264 but as with all material he had an incredible ability to make it his own. The vocal writing is superb and the choir and orchestra provide an excellent setting for all of our soloists to shine. All four singers have recently given impressive art song recitals reviewed in this newsletter, available on our website.

The Choir of The Queen's College, Oxford Returns to Tidewater

      On Thursday, April 6, 2006 we heard a wonderful selection of songs at Providence Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach. This was the final concert of the Choir of the Queen's College before they returned to Oxford after a tour that included performances in Boston and Cambridge, MA, several in New York City and three performances in Hampton Roads. John Dixon, who heads the Academy of Music and is organist at Providence Presbyterian Church is a graduate of The Queen's College and coordinated this and their previous visit to Tidewater.

      Dr. Owen Rees conducts the choir of about thirty voices assisted by the Organ Scholars Tom Wilkinson and Charlotte Phillips. In the program booklet we learn that The Queen's College was founded in 1340 and has the best mixed choir of any of Oxford University's many colleges.

      The music of seventeenth-century Portugal was featured in the performance here and on their new CD sold at intermission. Dr. Rees has for the last fifteen years been at the forefront of research and performance of this choral repertory. They sang Gloria and Agnus Dei from Missa Paradisi portas by Manuel Cardoso (1566 -1650). This piece is complex with many individual music lines simultaneously flowing to create a rich tapestry of sound.

      In conversation at the reception we had the opportunity to meet several of these talented and friendly young men and women. Most were music majors but we met a future biologist, rector and engineer. They were a bit tired and ready to be back home. We discussed their favorite pieces (of those they performed) and learned that having a fresh white shirt for each performance is a challenge on the road.

      In addition to the Cardoso, especially educational was a set with a piece by Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) in the "old style" contrasted sharply with J.S. Bach's (1685-1750) Lobet den Herrn. The liveliness of the Bach was exhilarating with its greatly expanded vocal range.

      Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 -1958), the rich rippled soundscape of The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625); the lovely Now is the Month of Maying by Thomas Morley (1557/8-1602); and music by Henry Purcell demonstrated just how rich the English choral tradition really is.

      The grand finale was four American pieces: I Got Rhythm (Gershwin), Autumn Leaves (Kosma), And So It Goes (Billy Joel) and Blue Moon (Rogers). The final bows once again made me aware that the fellows in the group did edgier things in styling their hair than did the gals. It was a warm, friendly, superb quality musical evening.

Bellissima's Hope Springs Eternal

      November 3, 11 & 19, 2006 - various venues. Bellissima, the women's choral ensemble directed by Deborah Carr, presented a diverse program titled Hope Springs Eternal. The program got off to a rousing start with three sopranos and an alto singing Henry Purcell's Sound the Trumpet with the pure ethereal sound of high sopranos contrasted to the deeper alto sound. Music by familiar composers J.S. Bach, Franz Schubert and Francis Poulenc, and the less well known David Willcocks, Pablo Casals, Eleanor Daley, Joan Szymko, Charles Collins and Stephen Hatfield demonstrated how polished and coordinated the sound of these women has become. Kai Lin was at the organ and the instrumental additions of cello (Leslie Frittelli) and violin (Ray Pankarowicz) enhance the overall effect of the voices. Spoken introductions to the music by Ms. Carr were a nice addition.

Back to Top

Back to Choral Performances Index

Home  Calendar  Announcements  Issues  Reviews  Articles Contact Us