December 5, 2014
The Hamilton College Community Masterworks Chorale was initially founded in 1975 as the Oratorio Society. Today, it is comprised of many members of the Hamilton community, including students, faculty and staff, as well as Clinton locals and their families, amounting to roughly 120 singers. Majorie and Robert W. McEwen Professor of Music G. Roberts Kolb has been conducting the group since he came to Hamilton College in 1981.
On Tuesday, December 2, Hamilton’s Masterworks Chorale was joined on the Wellin Hall stage by Symphor!a, one of the finest orchestral groups in the area, as well as four vocal soloists: soprano Nancy James, mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce, tenor Jon English and baritone Timothy LeFebvre. Together, these musicians presented two great works of sufferance and hope: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time.
These two pieces, performed in tandem, tell the tale of peace and hope found in God through the centuries. While Bach’s Cantata No. 21 was first performed in 1714, Tippett’s canon premiered in 1944. The thematic similarity between the two works demonstrates the universality and duration of the emotions they expressed. Such dramatic selections drew a respectable crowd full of students and locals eager to hear their friends and family members perform.
The concert began with Bach’s cantata. This piece can be broken into two sections. The first is grieving and all in a minor key. This section opened with hushed oboe and violins, which set the scene for the chorus to join. Although the combined groups easily filled the stage with their physical presence, their performance was surprisingly quiet. While the quietness could be justified by the somber theme of the cantata, there were certainly instances that might have been improved through the use of greater volume.
In the second part of the cantata, redemption is found through faith in God. Bach communicates this sense of joy by writing this section mainly in major keys, but it again felt too quiet, as though the singers were allowing their emotions to be muted. In a duet between the soprano and the baritone, LeFabvre sang the role of Jesus answering James as she sang the part of the soul. It was a powerful moment, but although James and LeFebvre sang beautifully independent of one another, however, their voices did not meld very convincingly for this duet.
Finally, following a moving solo tenor aria which called on the chorus to rejoice, the cantata culminated in triumphant praise of Jesus. For this conclusion, the brass section and timpani made a long-awaited entrance, which helped complete the piece and lent a good deal of previously missing volume. This joyful ending elicited a long round of applause from an audience much relieved to find that the devastation described at the beginning of the cantata had found resolution.
Following intermission, the Masterworks Chorale and Symphor!a reconvened to perform Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Bach’s influence was readily evident in this work in the way each soloist’s phrases were punctuated by the full chorus. However, instead of chorales, Tippett included African-American spirituals in an attempt to appeal to a wider secular audience. This incorporation of more contemporary gospel lent a whiff of blues to an otherwise strictly traditional oratorio. The modern twist caught in the ears of audience members, and made for an overall more engaging performance than the Bach.
For this oratorio, each soloist played a consistent role as the plot unfolded. English, singing tenor, assumed the role of the “oppressed child of our time.” His solos were consistently accompanied by physical emphasis, as he nodded and swayed in line with the beat of the music and the cadence of the lyrics he was singing.
The piece was structured in three parts in an allusion to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, composed in 1741. Each part presented a slightly different theme. With the chorus’ entrance at the beginning of Part II, the Masterworks Chorale finally managed to suffuse the entire auditorium with their voices, and it was well worth the wait. As they filled Wellin Hall, a detectable shift took place in the audience as well. Although the story recounted in the libretto was perhaps less relatable than Bach’s more general text, the performers empathized with the emotions described, and were able to connect persuasively with the audience. One could tell that they enjoyed singing this piece as much as the audience enjoyed listening.
As always, Symphor!a delivered a beautiful performance, and functioned as a flawless partner for the Masterworks Chorale as well as for the soloists. The concert was a lovely example of the musical achievements of the Hamilton community.