Monday, June 01, 2009

Georgia Festival Chorus presents "Total Praise"

(reflections on a concert May 31 at First Baptist Church, Marietta, Georgia by The Georgia Festival Chorus, Frank Boggs, founding director, David Scott Associate Director, Ken Terrell, Assistant Director, Cathy Adams, Pianist, John Innes, Organist)

The theme of Sunday night’s concert by the Georgia Festival Chorus was set at the start by an intense, brief segment of John Ness Beck’s anthem “Total Praise.” The rest of the piece was held in reserve until the end of the evening, when founding director Frank Boggs rose, still recuperating from emergency heart surgery just three weeks ago. At that point, it was an emphatic statement of thanks and praise. But at the start, the piece was a wake – up call, and Associate Director David Scott tied each piece to that theme.

Another theme emerged as the three directors put the Georgia Festival through their paces: contrast. That opening statement by Beck showed contrast in texture and contrast in dynamics, beginning with a soprano’s earnest solo line, joined by full chorus, and suddenly swelling as the choir sang “You are the source of my strength / You are the strength of my life.”

Immediately, that contemporary piece was contrasted to Haydn’s classical balance. Sopranos were especially noteworthy, floating their high notes without vibrato above the roiling counterpoint of the lower voices in the “Kyrie” from the Lord Nelson Mass. For “The Heavens are Telling,” the chorus sang grandly over Haydn’s playful keyboard ornamentation, executed presto by pianist Cathy Adams and organist John Innes. The chorus exuded joy – classically contained -- bringing each iteration of the word “firmament” to a perfect unison “tee.”

A setting of the Lord’s Prayer by a composer named Cain (any first names, program writer?) set up a different kind of contrast. After Haydn, we were treated to unaccompanied voices piling up in a chord that expressed anguish and need as the words addressed “Our Father who art in Heaven.” The chorus slid through the contemporary harmonies accurately and emotionally, bringing the piece to reassuring consonance only at the very end.

The next piece, Beck's setting of Psalm 90 ( “Canticle of Praise” ) began deceptively as one of those generically heartfelt ballads of the 70s identified with Barry Manilow, but it cut loose from its pop moorings around the line about our lives being as the grass that is cut down and “gone.” There was a special effect here as each voice part alternated the syllable “gone” on a different pitch, descending into gloom. From then on, all stylistic bets were off: sunny harmonies broke through, but kept evolving until we were into strong choral writing with keyboard antics that sounded more like Bartok than Barry Manilow.

Assistant director Ken Terrell introduced a set of hymns arranged by someone named Wilberg, where there were fewer compositional pyrotechnics and therefore greater exposure of the Chorus’s technique. Women sounded lovely above bubbling flute accompaniment in “All things Bright and Beautiful.” For “The King of Love my Shepherd Is” the men sustained convincing unison, basses and tenors together, on some high pitches – very difficult to do right.

Again, for contrast, a select ensemble of voices came forward to sing a cappella “E’en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come” by Paul Manz. It’s an especially moving piece, expressing yearning with open harmonies and surprising melodic turns.

We also heard fine arrangements of Broadway tunes, including “Somewhere,” credited to Bernstein. (Attention program writer: The lyrics were enunciated so well. Who wrote them?) “Georgia on My Mind” was warmly harmonized, punctuated by Cathy Adams’ piano stylings, and notable especially for the bridge, sung by the women with warm tone quality and jazzy phrasing. These people know what they’re doing when they switch genres!

Throughout the evening, the choir showed off amazing control with long crescendos, sudden decrescendos, and every combination of the two.

Rising to thank his choir for their support of him during his illness, and then to conduct the full rendition of “Total Praise,” Frank Boggs showed off the choir’s chops by dramatically elongating a fermata. Conducting the final phrases of the song for an encore, Mr. Boggs again varied the sound.

As always, the evening ended with the lovely Lutkin Benediction, sung by the choir spread throughout the hall.

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