Charlie Bates: Singers take ‘Alleluia’ to ‘Amen’
November 20, 2009
Steamboat Springs — In her pre-concert address at the Yampa Valley Singers' performance Tuesday, chorus director Marie Carmichael expressed pleasure at the sight of the over-flowing crowd gathered for this music event, the first of the holiday season. The Yampa Valley Singers is a for-credit class at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus, which also sponsored the concert. She made note that the first utterance of the program was to be "Alleluia;" the last was to be "Amen." The first piece, "Alleluia," by American composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984), though a one-word song of praise, becomes progressively more complex.
The same composer's "Frostiana," composed to commemorate the bicentennial of Amherst, Mass., is quite different. It's not at all religious, but it's not folksy either. Of the seven Robert Frost poems Thompson originally put to music, we heard four: "The Road not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (both old chestnuts) and the lesser known "A Girls' Garden" and "Choose Something like a Star" (in my edition of Frost's Complete Poems, the title is "Take Something like a Star.") This is the one I found most intriguing, both the poem itself and the grandeur of the music, especially toward the end when the low-pitched roll of the huge pipes contrasted with the ethereal upper register of the high voices. Frost, in this poem, admonishes us to focus on a star so as to emulate its steadfastness, but perhaps the most important line is "Some mystery becomes the proud." This may best explain Frost's enigmatic quality; for example, the word "sigh" in the last stanza of "The Road not Taken" may be an expression of regret. Surely, he personally had no doubt he had chosen the right path. Or could it be he would never be able to experience the other road? Perhaps both — a fundamentally mortal dilemma.
Frost, of poets least understood by his most ardent admirers, was not a nature poet: He wrote about human experience. The woods, so often mentioned, were growing back in New England during his lifetime, having been cleared in the early 19th century for sheep pasture. They often have an ominous presence, encroaching on isolated farms. This is best expressed in "Home Burial." Better than any other author I know, Frost is able to create a palpable tension between protagonists, usually, as in "Home Burial," man and wife. He captured the dynamic that resulted in New Hampshire being the axe-murder capital of the world.
But enough. Before "Star," we heard "A Girl's Garden," which follows Frost's poetics in that it begins in delight and ends in wisdom. Delight rules, especially since the music is so jolly.
The last piece was the deeply religious "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," by the contemporary English composer John Milford Rutter (b. 1945). The words are those of the Gospel of Luke proclaiming the birth of Jesus. The libretto is in Latin, for which an English translation was thankfully provided. This piece, as well as "Frostiana," employed the full 26-member chorus and 10-piece orchestra, which played to advantage in the acoustically excellent Methodist Church nave.
The Yampa Valley Singers will perform again Dec. 5 and 6 in conjunction with Carmichael's other choral group, The Mountain Madrigals, and with the Steamboat Springs Orchestra at the Steamboat Christian Center.
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