Dallas — The 36-voice Arts District Chorale and conductor Constantina Tsolainou presented an admirable array of 20th-century choral music on Oct. 16 at Royal Lane Baptist Church, displaying a wide expressive and interpretive range, but with some issues of precision of attack and an occasional failure of the clean, pure tone this music demands.
The theme was celebration; settings of texts of 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman provided a focus, with short side journeys into the Bible and poetry of the Victorian Catholic mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins. The program opened, however, with a work for organ alone, the Fanfare for solo organ by Los Angeles-based American composer Craig Phillips. Organist Chris S. Brunt took the spotlight here for a colorful reading of this appropriately joyful, often majestic work drawing on the French and British traditions of organ cathedral music, but with a slight American accent.
Twentieth-century American composer Vincent Persichetti’s cantata Celebration, here in a version for organ and chorus, provided nine brief movements setting some of Whitman’s most evocative texts, giving the musicians and conductor Tsolainou opportunity to explore a wide range of effects and emotions. The opening movement engages the listener with disarming simplicity; Persichetti reached the apex of his command of choral timbre in the fifth movement, capped, intriguingly, with the -ng at the end of the word “waiting” stretched into a choral hum. In the sixth movement, “Flaunt Out O Sea,” Persichetti dared to take on the same iconic text set in the Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams, and succeeded in shining a somewhat different light on those words. While Tsolainou shaped the cantata and its short movements into a convincingly momentous unified effect, ragged choral entrances, particularly in the second and ninth movements, detracted from the otherwise compelling performance.
A brass and percussion ensemble of nine musicians from the SMU Meadows Wind Ensemble joined the chorus along with pianist Brian Bentley for contemporary British composer Bob Chilcott’s Jubilate. This multi-movement work imaginatively interlards poetry of Hopkins with portions of Psalm 100, allowing these texts to interact across three millennia, while the piano, sections of the choir, and soloists within the instrumental ensemble formed intriguing combinations throughout, building to a grand climax on the Psalm text “Be thankful unto Him.” Once again, some edgy moments in the chorus detracted, if only slightly, from the well-shaped musical trajectory.
A Jubilant Song for chorus and piano, a unified setting of Whitman texts by 20th century American composer Norman Dello Joio, provided the final work of the concert. Here, much imaginative tone painting, ranging from a chime-like opening to a humorous pointillistic effect on the word “lightning,” provided a strong finale, with chorus, conductor Tsolainou, and pianist Bentley presenting a sometimes grand, ultimately reflective close to the evening.