Review: “A Crown of Stars” performed by The Cantate Chamber Singers and Maryland State Boychoir

WASHINGTON, D. C.-On Sunday March 6, The Cantate Chamber Singers under the direction of Gisѐle Becker presented a joint concert at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church with the Maryland State Boychoir. Artistic Director Stephen Holmes led the Maryland State Boychoir in a diverse offering of selections for the first half of the concert. The repertoire was comprised of mostly sacred literature that included the choral polyphony of Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” and John Ireland’s anthem “Greater Love Hath No Man,” in which the boy soprano voices soared exquisitely above the grandeur of the organ and supported by the secure singing of the lower voices. A lovely contrast were the two settings of the “Miserere Mei.” Lotti’s setting was of a haunting quality, while the following by Burchard displayed the ensemble in full voiced grandeur. Another delight was a simple, but delicately sweet setting of “The 23rd Psalm” by Bobby McFerrin.

Of note was the world premiere of “Sing, O Daughter of Zion” by Andrew Earle Simpson. This particular piece by Simpson was generally lovely in nature, a cappella in execution and marked by interesting rhythmic vitalilty. Holmes led the choir with an engaging presence and his musical commitment shined through in the singing of the group. Crowd pleasers that accorded the talented young men roaring applause included Hall Johnson’s spiritual, “Aint Got Time to Die” and the South African folk song, “Think of Me.”

The wedding oratorio, A Crown of Stars by area composer Andrew Earle Simpson was the major work of the concert, with the combined forces of The Cantate Chamber Singers, The Maryland State Boychoir, guest soloists soprano Lisa Edwards-Burrs , tenor Joseph Dietrich and orchestra conducted by Gisѐle Becker. Simpson was a student of the noted American composer Lukas Foss. Another fine young composer in Washington, D. C. comes immediately to mind: Julian Wachner, who also studied with Foss and is the conductor of The Washington Chorus.

There were some unique qualities of the work that set it apart from the traditional settings of the oratorio such as those by Handel, Haydn or Mendelssohn. Generally, the oratorio is drawn from biblical sources, whereas Simpson’s work was reminiscent of the format of that Johannes Brahms used for his German Requiem in which the composer implored a variety of text, rather than a set liturgical format or order.
In this case, there were various sources represented such as Rosetti, Sappho and Medici among many other origins. Musically, the Simpson’s work was full of beautiful moments, yet the performance was plagued by the acoustics of the reverberant church, which would serve the combination of voices, organ and strings well, but not necessarily the brilliance of brass or percussion instruments. Another observation was the placement of the vocal soloists on the far opposites of the other. Perhaps having the soprano and tenor soloist in closer proximity may have further complemented the interaction between the soloists in the duet passages.

Glowing moments came in the solos by tenor Joseph Dietrich, singing with a beautiful, lyrical quality throughout and soprano Lisa Edward-Burrs, whose voice shimmered, especially in her upper tessitura This was most noticeable in the soprano solo “The Face of the World Has Changed.” “Dream-Love” truly showcased the beauty of Simpson’s choral writing, further complimented by the melodic serenity of the strings and woodwinds. In “Wedding Ritual” tenor Joseph Dietrich was emphatic in his delivery and sang with conviction. At the movement’s conclusion, soprano Lisa Edward Burrs floated in the heavens on the word ‘death,’ which conveyed a sense of eternal hope. This movement also provided The Cantate Singers the perfect vehicle to yield a well blended choral sound, which they did to great effect. The choral finale, hymn-like in scope brought the work to a brilliant close.

REVIEWER’S NOTE: It is hoped that there will be an opportunity to hear the work again in a setting that would lend itself to the musical forces required to perform this noteworthy composition.


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