Did you know that September 19 is officially Utah Chamber Artists’ Day? Neither did anyone else until that date this year, when one of Governor Gary Herbert’s minions announced before the concert at the Cathedral of the Madeleine that he (the governor) decreed it so. It was a transparent bid at free campaign exposure, but the concert that followed more than made up for the rocky start.
When the choir was finally allowed to begin, they processed from the back of the cathedral to the front singing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Sine Nomine” as arranged by their artistic director, Barlow Bradford. Their delivery was clear, but compared to the many other times I have heard choirs process into that church, it came across thin and disjointed. However, the choir instantly dissipated my skepticism with their second piece: “He Watching Over Israel” by Felix Mendelssohn. The voices, along with the orchestra, were clear and in tune, with an obviously skilled sense of control. The music resonated throughout the Cathedral, which is a hard space to fill.
The theme of the night was a “Cathedral Collage.” I appreciated this program design, because it kept my interest. I have enjoyed long operas and masses before, but this concert was one that never once threatened to lull me to sleep. It was not that it was exciting, per se—most of the songs were set at a tranquil tempo without sudden crescendos—but I did not expect any piece to be quite like the one that preceded it.
I was pleasantly surprised with the UCA’s full use of the Cathedral space. Soloists were placed throughout the church, rather than always at the front, and the choir moved from the altar several times. For two movements from Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 8,” the string musicians were placed in the Lady Chapel. The next piece, a movement from Jean Françaix’s “Wind Quintet,” had the woodwinds playing from the St. Joseph Chapel. It was possibly the first time I had ever seen the space used in that way (after four years of attending school in the basement), and with only minimal spotlighting, the effect was intense. The lighting was thoughtful throughout, with soloists being emphasized when appropriate and a good balance between showing off the beautiful surroundings of the Cathedral and putting focus on the performance.
Another good use of the space occurred in the way the choir arranged itself while it performed “The Bluebird” by C.V. Stanford. When I had heard that this piece would be performed in the round, I had no idea what to expect. The effect of singing in the round comes from being either part of a circle of singers or from standing in the middle of one. I realized the singers were forming a circle around the entire audience, and prepared myself to be disappointed by a repeat of the weak procession. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised! Perhaps the singers had warmed up, or maybe the intended effect was different, but the richness of the voices spread throughout the church was a striking contrast to Melissa Dawson’s clear, bright soprano. The balance struck among all the participating musicians seemed perfect to me.
“The Bluebird” was a difficult highlight to follow, and at first I was rather skeptical of Michael Chipman’s solo singing, as I thought he might not have understood the meaning of the German lyrics to “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” by Gustav Mahler. Mahler is a much-respected poet in the German-speaking world, and the desolate feeling of the English translation did not at first show on Chipman’s face. However, after a minute or so the orchestra began to convey the sadness and melancholy present in the words of the song, and whether Chipman realized it or not, his facial expression followed suit. His voice was deep and rich, which made the switch from the dreamy “Bluebird” to the somber “I am lost to the world” even more complete.
A few pieces later, I was startled by the somewhat-experimental “Come Sweet Death” by Bach/London/Sandberg. According to the program, the idea was to bring a “fresh perspective” to Bach’s melody. I may be old-fashioned in this, but I would have preferred to hear the piece the way Bach meant it to be. The choir made a staggered formation and sang the words once with synchronized hand motions, then again with each member of the choir choosing his or her own timing, but still with the hand motions. I appreciated the music, and even the staggered voices were an interesting effect, but the hand motions made me feel like I was in elementary school again. I actually did close my eyes in order to better enjoy the music.
Overall, this concert was a great success in my mind. It was my first encounter with the Utah Chamber Artists, and I will be sure not to let it be my last. It is obvious to anyone watching that these musicians are deeply dedicated to their art, and the dedication is reflected in the quality and breadth of their performance. If you have any inkling of a desire to see some amazing classical music performed in Utah, make sure to attend one or more of their upcoming concerts, which are listed at http://www.utahchamberartists.org/concerts.