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March 30, 2009

Baltimore Choral Arts Society celebrates nature and tonality in works by Haydn and Tina Davidson

The stated theme of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's program Sunday evening was nature, in all of its force and beauty. An underlying theme came through, too -- the lasting power of traditional tonality.

In terms of harmonic language, there isn't really a huge difference between the music of Haydn from around 1800 that was performed on the second half of the concert and the music of Tina Davidson from 2003 that was performed on the first. It all added up to quite a feast of comfortable consonance. This is not a complaint, mind you. There is no law requiring contemporary composers to write in an atonal style, and, when it comes to beautifully crafted works that speak freshly through fundamentally familiar idioms, Davidson is as persuasive as they come.

The Hymn of the Universe, which received its East Coast premiere in this concert at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, is instantly appealing. The texts come from the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist whose musings on the nature and communality of humanity continue to attract admiration more than 50 years after his death. Steeped in religious imagery, yet universal in concept, the poetic words are in themselves quite affecting. Two examples: "In the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted a desire, irresistible, which makes us cry out: Lord, make us one"; "Raise me up until, at long last, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe".

Davidson subtly sets all the material to music that flows with a lyrical gracefulness. The choral writing is clean, clear and immediately communicative. The accompaniment of English horn, string orchestra (originally string quartet) and marimba surrounds the vocal lines with a distinctively subtle patina. Much of the harmonic and rhythmic motion is achieved by gently alternating chords a short distance apart, in a manner that has a hint of minimalism about it. In the closing passages, the choral writing reaches a radiant height, here enhanced by a gradual reduction of lighting in the theater so that the last sounds resonated in a suggestion of cosmic darkness.

Davidson was on hand to enjoy the hearty ovation that followed a polished performance conducted with obvious commitment by Tom Hall. The choristers were attentive to matters of blend and tonal nuance and sang with considerable expressiveness. The orchestra, too, came through beautifully. Jane Marvine was the elegant English horn soloist, Christopher Williams the refined percussionist.

The Haydn portion of the evening included stylish accounts of the sun and storm movements from The Creation and The Seasons, as well as a complete performance of a rarely encountered piece called The Storm. There was something rather disjointed about the arrangement of the items (intermittent commentary from Hall didn't help the sense of flow), but any opportunity to savor Haydn's genius is welcome. Although soloists from within the choir were not uniformly effective, the chorus as a whole again responded impressively. And when Hall drove his forces along in the most dramatic, propulsive passages, the results were truly stirring.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 PM | | Comments (0)
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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