On June 10, Church of the Wayfarer in Carmel was the acoustically lovely setting for the Hartnell Community Choir’s ambitious program under the direction of Robin McKee Williams. This small but mighty vocal ensemble continues to prove its vocal chops with challenging music more often programmed with larger groups. The richness of sound and blend with string instruments, piano and flute was more than evident. Four guest vocalists began the program featuring arias and art songs from a variety of composers. Gabriel Faure’s En Sourdine, featuring Kirl Havezov, baritone, set a peaceful feeling that evolved into “the nightingale” singing as the “voice of our despair.” Anna Yelizarova, mezzo-soprano, followed with a most confident, and wide vocal range, Amour from the second act of Camille Saint-Saens “Sampson and Delila.” What may appear as a love song and enticement for Sampson to go to Delila, is actually a song of vengeance with a wish for the god of love to “pour poison in his heart.” Veronica Jensen, mezzo-soprano, displayed a very flirty and strong Carmen from the moment she walked on. There was no doubt as to what was on Carmen’s mind. In Nemico della patria, from Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”, Krassen Karagiozov, baritone, sang of being the “Enemy of the Fatherland.” Strength of conviction and emotion was consistent throughout the aria finishing with “the only truth is passion.” The piano mastery of Marina Thomas underpinning these strong soloists goes without saying. It was as if Thomas was an orchestra unto herself.
A shift to more contemporary composers began with John Tavener’s Song of the Angel.” Jody Lee, soprano, so capably gave the feeling of the mystical and ethereal quality that Tavener often strives for. The range and control needed for this piece seemed a walk in the park for Lee. Her long and languid lines left the listener wondering when she ever took a breath! This was accompanied by the Gabrielle Ensemble – Eldar Hudiev 1st violin, Astrid Huala 2nd violin, John Wineglass viola, Judy Roberts cello, and Aleksey Klyushnik bass and cello. The ensemble of voice and strings was truly mesmerizing. The ending faded to a sequence of each string instrument repeating a final statement. Ola Gjeilo’s compositions are showing up more and more in choral concerts. Dark Night of the Soul featured Cora Frantz and the Hartnell Community Choir. A characteristic of many contemporary composers is having a clear voice soprano float over the chorus. Frantz left no doubt as to her skill of clarity and beauty of line with no harshness only the ethereal “float.” Finishing the first half was the second Gjeilo piece – Evening Prayer. Again, an other worldly and spiritual feeling had the addition of Stu Reynolds tenor saxophone. While Reynolds licks might have been notated, the feeling was one of improvisation and definitely solidly assured.
In the second half, three more contemporary and often programed choral composers were featured. Kim Arnesen’s setting of a text found on a concentration camp wall was especially poignant. Even When He Is Silent is a simply eloquent reminder of faith not lost under the worst of horrific circumstances. Arvo Pärt is known for a progressive and contemporary use of dissonance. This work, Alleluia-Tropus, was accompanied by four celli with Mahonna Keech and Tylan Dincer as added cellists, plus flute, and piano. This unique ensemble created the foundation for the text intercession “before Christ the God that our souls may be saved.”
Rounding out this afternoon’s already abundant wealth of vocal treasures was the Morten Lauridsen Lux Aeterna. This powerful work has become a programming staple. Using various Latin sacred texts, Lauridsen has created a choral gold standard. In addition to the Gabrielle Ensemble, Carolyn Perkins added shimmering flute and George Peterson very confident and masterful piano accompaniment. As mentioned previously, McKee Williams’ small but mighty chorus showed their prowess with this extended work. The third movement, O Nata Lux, is probably the most well known. As a stand alone, it is often programmed. McKee Williams is fearless in her dedication and enthusiasm as well as determination to continue to bring major choral works to life with this dedicated group of singers and instrumentalists.