Williamsburg Choral Guild
Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, March 5, 2017
Reviewed by John Shulson
Reprinted by permission of the Virginia Gazette

The Williamsburg Choral Guild’s recent program at the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, featured Mozart and three modern works, one, a U.S. premiere, that made for a pleasantly sonorous afternoon.

The focal piece was Mozart’s Vespere Solennes de Confessore, a sacred work written for the Salzburg Cathedral. The uplifting work effectively blends the Latin text with joyous and energetically charged Psalm-based music. The Guild offered energetic and focused singing that brought the text to life, ably enhanced by guest soloists soprano Sarah Kate Walston, mezzo-soprano Phaedra McNorton, tenor Ben Kwak and bass Branch Fields.

The one portion departing from the standard Catholic text is the “Laudate Dominum” that speaks of peace and tranquility. This is the best known section and is often heard as a stand alone work. To this movement Ms. Walston brought a beautifully developed soprano voice that was pure of tone and sincere in delivery, adding elegance to the Guild’s solid singing.

Noteworthy on this program was the U.S. premiere of Cecilia McDowell’s A Time for All Seasons. McDowell is one of England’s most prolific composers today, having written many works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, instrumentalists, choral groups, vocalists, brass and winds and the stage. Her skill was fully evident in Time for All Seasons, which superbly blends the Biblical text from Ecclesiastes 3: “to every thing there is a season” with poet Kevin Crossley-Holland’s more contemporary take on Biblical sentiments.

McDowell’s composition is sophisticated and contemplative, with fascinating and diverse musical styles and the use of percussion for emotional impact. Together these elements created a profoundly moving listening experience. In addition to a full chorus, she uses the children’s voices of the Williamsburg Youth Chorale to draw a running thread of Biblical text throughout the work. The Guild delivered a strong and impressive performance, enhanced by the Youth Chorale's message of hope in this worthy premiere.

Continuing with things modern, the Guild also offered a solid performance of Emma Lou Diemer’s Dream within a Dream. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, Diemer effectively crafted a poetic work that lyrically caught Poe’s somewhat dark sentiments and the curious bridge between reality and dreams.

The final modern work was Dan Forrest’s You are the Music. Forrest is one of this country’s most established composers, whose works are performed worldwide. From the opening haunting notes by Ellen Polachek on French horn and the equally haunting soprano vocal line, this gentle work speaks to the beauty of the inner spirit and its harmony. Walston was again featured soloist, this time singing from the balcony, where her crystalline sound floated over the audience.  It was a compelling composition that was given a fine performance.

Conductor Jay BeVille’s strong hand was again responsible for shaping this diverse and interesting program of strongly sung performances, ably assisted by Rebecca Davy’s commanding piano and organ accompaniment.

This review originally appeared in an expanded version in the Virginia Gazette.

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