News Times Live - Danbury, CT

News Times Live
Mar 16 2007 4:15 AM
Choral settings with a mix of sounds and styles

The Connecticut Master Chorale closed its season on Saturday night with music drawn from spirituals and the Caribbean. The audience at Newtown's St. Rose of Lima got an earful of some unusual sounds and responded enthusiastically.

André Thomas'"Songs from the Heart" made up the first half of the program. These are a set of eight songs based on traditional spirituals, accompanied by a jazz trio. Music Director Tina Johns Heidrich led the group with a sure command of the style and an expressive flair.

The chorale mastered the music's syncopated, jazzy rhythms and presented the lyrics with conviction and clarity. If the singing seemed a bit careful and polite at times, the joyous spirit of the music was unmistakable. There was a nice contrast of sweet and swinging in songs such as "Band of Angels," the second of the set. The group showed off a rich sound and sure intonation in "Keep Your Lamps," keeping the tension of the melodic line through fine dynamic control. "Swing Down, Chariot" is a familiar spiritual, set here to catchy rhythms that rushed to a brilliant close.

The great spiritual "Deep River" has been arranged beautifully by the composer. It was sung unaccompanied, simply but with some nice harmonic colors. "If You're Happy/Amen" combined the two tunes in a snappy setting. It made a natural encore when the audience kept applauding after the lush harmonies and driving accompaniments of "John Saw Duh Numbah" made for a big finale.

On the second half of the program was Glenn McClure's "St. Francis in the Americas: A Caribbean Mass." The piece interpolates readings from the letters of St. Francis into the traditional Mass text and includes Caribbean steel drums and Latin percussion in the accompaniment.

McClure has an ear for melody, such as the opening chant, sung clearly and strongly by chorus baritone Edward Kotchian. The choir picked up the theme and the music took on a bouncy, Latin-flavored rhythm. Tenor soloist Richard Slade sang with a bright tone, ringing top and soulful feeling in the "Altissimo" movement, whose snappy percussion and rock song-like chord progressions added further to the stylistic mix.

A sinuous line in the steel drums, picked up by the voices, distinguished "Kyrie," the opening of the standard Mass text. The "Gloria" was spiritual-like, alternating tunes reminiscent of "Motherless Child" and "Amazing Grace." Its effect was diminished by the several repetitions. Mezzo-soprano Lainie Diamond sang with feeling, if with a rather unfocused-sounding tone.

Chorus soprano Cindy Pena sang simply and sweetly in another chant-like setting of St. Francis. The "Credo" is set to an infectious Latin beat, as a tenor solo with choral interjections, which brings some spice to an often dutiful-sounding section of the Mass. The "Santo" sets a duet against the chorus. Perhaps partly due to the way the composer set the music vocally, Diamond's mezzo tended to get lost in the shadow of Slade's tenor.

"Memorial Acclamation/Amen" effectively set a mood of hope, accompanied by the eerie sound of the high steel drum against the piano. The widely spaced harmonies of the "Agnus Dei" brought a sense of finality to the Mass text and earlier themes returned to close out the piece.

Conductor Heidrich showed a heartfelt commitment to the music and got the same from her singers. Pianist Joseph Jacovino, Jr., percussionists Michael Dobson and Julian Pellicano, electric bassist Antonio Biello and steel drummers Dennis Sullivan, Murray Mast and Brian Ente we

re strong contributors throughout. The combination of texts worked well dramatically. The distinctive timbre of the steel band may not offer the broadest emotional range but the mix of styles and sounds was worth exploring.


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