Dallas — American composer Randall Thompson achieved one of the high points of 20th-century American music in 1936 with The Peaceable Kingdom, a cycle of unaccompanied choral movements. Sunday night at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, on a concert devoted entirely to American choral music, the 25-voice Orpheus Chamber Singers advocated this musical monument beautifully while displaying the considerable skills of the chorus and guest conductor Greg H. Hobbs.
Thompson is best-known among aficionados of choral music for his adamantly American settings of patriotic texts of Thomas Jefferson (The Testament of Freedom) and poetry of Robert Frost (Frostiana); in The Peaceable Kingdom, he draws on largely somber texts from the Book of Isaiah in the King James Version, and, within a traditional harmonic framework, and with only the human voice as his instrument, evokes colonial American hymnody as well as the choral settings of the English Renaissance and Palestrina. In the hands of a technically perfect ensemble and an imaginative conductor, the effect was spellbinding, while the resonant acoustic of the sanctuary of Highland Park Presbyterian provided an ideal acoustic setting (and, for that matter, visual) setting for this relatively small, perfectly blended chorus.
While the chorus carried its end of the bargain with perfect intonation and blending, conductor Hobbs had the equally daunting task of finding and maintaining the momentum of the eight short movements, which he accomplished admirably, achieving a sense of fluidity extending from note to note, phrase to phrase, and movement to movement.
The program opened with another unique but unmistakably American setting of a Biblical text, Charles Ives’ Psalm LXVII from 1894, a revolutionary accomplishment for its time in which that composer stubbornly avoided obvious tone painting and miraculously created an aura of beauty within a largely dissonant setting. Following the Thompson cycle, contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon’s “A Quiet Moment” used a sustained bass note to create color and texture, while Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” intriguingly describes the act of falling asleep. Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations of 1940, a set of three choruses by Irish poet James Stephens, likewise provided the chorus and conductor with a huge range of expressive possibilities, closing with the playfully erotic “The Coolin.”
After intermission, Hobbs and the chorus offered a second extended choral cycle, contemporary composer Jeffrey Van’s A Procession Winding Around Me, a set of four of Whitman’s Civil War poems with guitar accompaniment. Van rather bravely took on texts memorably set by many before him (most notably by Vaughan Williams); on first hearing, the guitar accompaniment (ably performed by Dan Kyzer) seemed at time times felt puzzlingly irrelevant to Whitman’s search for redemption in the midst of the ruins of war. The concert closed with Libby Larson’s whimsical settings of three poems by Keith Gunderson and Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home,” the latter a sonorous reimagining of the old Appalachian more well-known as “The Lone Wild Bird,” and a perfect epilogue for an evening of great choral music performed to perfection.