Review: On Such a Night as This

A balmy Alabama evening was accompanied by a fitting soundtrack Tuesday as Sursum Corda presented a night-themed concert that ranged from deep nostalgia to gentle whispers.

Titled “on such a night as this,” after a line from one of the works, it was one of the choir’s most creative programs in its 10-year history, drawing from 20th and 21st century scores that channeled the choir’s strengths – dynamic waves, strong solos and a euphonious blend.

Joined by 12 instrumentalists, mostly from the Alabama Symphony, Sursum Corda and conductor Lester Seigel took the audience at Canterbury United Methodist Church through the romantic longings, natural wonders and indelible memories that night ambiance can evoke. Seigel first seized the nocturnal essence in Morten Lauridsen’s setting of James Agee’s poem, “Sure on This Shining Night,” weaving the 18-member choir around the orchestra, surging to fortissimos, subsiding to tender beauty.

“Night Pieces,” J.A.C. Redford’s look at night’s wonders through Wordsworth’s texts, was equally vivid with its natural imagery. A four-note motive on the text “How beautiful” echoed through the sanctuary, followed by ominous tones of an impending storm, descriptions of a cuckoo’s call and a return to calm. Prominent solos from hornist Kevin Kozak, English hornist Machiko Schlaffer and harpist Marsha Gunter contributed to the work’s picturesque journey.
Cellist Andrew Dunn was in the spotlight for Gabriel Jackson’s “Not No Faceless Angel,” delivering the appropriate poignancy to accompany Tanya Lake’s mournful text. Thick harmonies formed a beautiful backdrop as solo voices darted from the texture in this creative, engaging score. Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs” drew on the composer’s love affair with Hila Plitmann, who wrote the texts. Romantic and ebullient, the songs’ syllabic wordplay and whispers, as well as the purity of soprano Angel Baker’s solo, brought into focus this choir’s flexibility and the reason for Whitacre’s growing fame.

Winner of a Pulitzer, Grawemeyer and several Grammys, John Corigliano is best known for his orchestral music, so it was a delight to hear an early (1960) choral work, “Fern Hill,” set to Dylan Thomas. Its language is reminiscent of early Copland and almost operatic in scope. Idyllic landscapes and tales of the hunt, youth and farm life lent lucid and colorful details, enriched by strong horn solos from Kevin Kozak and a powerful vocal solo from mezzo-soprano Gloria Parvin.

–Michael Huebner, published by, April 19, 2016

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