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April 16, 2005

Two choirs in one church sound out opposing qualities

Kansas City Star:

Not long into Wednesday's joint concert of the Kansas City Chorale and the British choir the Sixteen, a third “character” emerged in the drama. Visitation Church is not just Kansas City's most elegantly designed new church, but it's also gaining a reputation as a fascinating acoustic space. The luscious Spanish-colonial structure has a “personality” that affords each new concert here both felicities and frustrations. Thus Wednesday's trans-Atlantic “battle of the choirs” was played out on a field filled with perils and pleasures. Despite reservations, it was one of the classiest programs I've heard this season.

The choirs sang numbers together and separately. The Chorale's Charles Bruffy took turns with the Sixteen's Harry Christophers on the podium. Bruffy introduced the program by announcing we were about to hear a blend of the brilliantine British choral sound with the 25-voice Chorale's “more cushioned American sound.” Bruffy was absolutely correct. This capital combination was best displayed interestingly enough in a piece with both British and American elements.

Michael Tippett's sophisticated arrangements of gospel tunes like “Deep River” and “Nobody Knows” (part of his oratorio “A Child of Our Time”) had a complex choral texture with fine balances and amazing pianissimos, even from sopranos in high range. The Sixteen sang six works of Thomas Tallis, including the supple “In ieiunio et fletu” and the painfully beautiful “Loquebantur variis linguis.” Their sound was diamond-clear and top-heavy, with piercing sopranos that lent to a sense of conviction, despite a coolness of approach overall.

The church's low ceiling and hard surfaces made for a lush but immediate sound. James MacMillan's magnificent “O Bone Jesu” had a mind-blowing clarity that confirmed my belief that this work is a modern masterpiece. But the mild curves of the ceiling's vault often pitched sounds into weird places. In “Salvator Mundi,” the Sixteen's sopranos seemed to come from another part of the room than the low voices. After all this brilliance, the Chorale's velvety sonority came as a relief despite Bruffy's lugubrious tempi in arrangements of “Shenandoah” and “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.”

A problem with the combined choirs was that each had its own sense of fortissimo (“ff” or “real strong”), and they failed to scale back from the resulting juggernaut of sound. This was less of an issue in John Tavener's murky but impressive “Song for Athene.” And it was averted altogether in the tour de force finale, Tallis' “Spem in Alium,” a motet with 40 separate voices sung by both choirs placed in groups of five around the perimeter of the church's upper galleries. The effect was thrilling, with Christophers in the center conducting 360 degrees of sound. The elated audience took to its feet immediately

Posted by acapnews at April 16, 2005 12:21 AM