The sea and “The Shore” gleam in vivid program from New York Choral Society

Mon Feb 12, 2018 at 1:38 pm
David Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society Saturday night at St. Francis Xavier Church.

David Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society Sunday at Carnegie Hall.

Vast and inscrutable, serene or raging, no earthly place has inspired more Romantic visions than the sea. Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall, an oceanic presence loomed over three Romantic/neo-Romantic works in vivid performances by the New York Choral Society and Orchestra under David Hayes.

After Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture as appetizer, the program bypassed familiar maritime fare by Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, and Vaughan Williams in favor of two lesser-known but superb works, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet (1910) and Frank Ticheli’s Symphony No. 3 “The Shore,” composed in 2013 and receiving its East Coast premiere.

Conductor Hayes led Mendelssohn’s overture at a brisk clip, emphasizing the piece’s continuity and sonata form over probing the mysterious depths of “Fingal’s Cave” (the alternate title added by a publisher).  Shapely phrasing and incisive string attacks were signs that this familiar item had not been shortchanged on rehearsal time.

During the lifetime of Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Britannia well and truly ruled the waves, and on Sunday his Songs of the Fleet for baritone, chorus, and orchestra gleamed with patriotic fervor and sympathy for the individual sailor.

With diatonic harmonies that sounded as though Wagner and Debussy never existed, and homophonic choral writing that clearly declaimed Henry Newbolt’s Kiplingesque verses, Stanford’s sea songs made a refreshingly uncomplicated appeal to the listener’s heart and gut.

The brilliant scoring and yo-ho-ho energy of two movements, the storm scene “The Song of the Sou’-wester” and the battle scene “The Little Admiral,” prompted storms of applause and even whoops of approval from some in the audience.

The other three songs expressed more tender sentiments, beginning with the mingled optimism and homesickness of “Sailing at Dawn” and closing the cycle with “Farewell,” an elegy for those who never returned that rose at the end to a blaze of patriotic glory.

The third song of the five, appropriately titled “The Middle Watch,” was a nocturne of sea and night sky, the slow wheeling of the constellations, and long thoughts about “life and the land of morn.”

Front and center through it all was baritone Jarrett Ott, whose clear, forward-placed delivery set just the right tone of resolve and masculine sentiment for this celebration of men at sea.

The chorus too showed considerable tonal range, hard-edged and boisterous in the fast songs and a velvet fog in the nocturnal middle movement. 

In 2013, poet David St. John and composer Frank Ticheli collaborated on a commission to honor John Alexander’s 40 years directing the Pacifica Chorale.  It is one of the mysteries of the classical-music trade that a richly expressive piece like Ticheli’s choral Symphony No. 3 “The Shore” has taken five years to make its way to a premiere on this coast.

From the opening bars of Sunday’s performance, it was clear that Ticheli knew his Debussy, and his Ravel too, and also had many a fresh idea of his own. Rivulets of woodwind scales chased each other down to the tidepools, where hermit crabs lurked and moonstones glowed in the sand, delighting the boy in the poem and the listener in the hall.

In the second movement, a nocturne akin to Stanford’s, a young man walked the beach, scanning the night sea for meaning, seeing only “one shore/Where we look out upon nothing/& the earth our whole lives.” Ironically, these seemingly nihilistic lines were set to intensely contrapuntal harmonies in the chorus and a brassy orchestral climax.

Similarly, although St. John’s spooky dream poem “The Black Gondola” contained no exclamation points, Ticheli’s setting had plenty of them, with fateful chimes and bass-drum thumps punctuating a Mahlerian death-in-Venice scene.

Moving without a break into the closing movement, “Redemption (Until the Sea is Dead),” a calming offstage horn vied briefly with an agitated viola solo onstage, until death was banished by a vision of everlasting love, which alternated melting choral passages with passionate orchestral surges.  (The Los-Angeles-based composer could be forgiven a Hollywood cliché or two at this point, such as cymbal sizzles at the climaxes.)

With exceptions such as the one noted above, the work’s choral writing consisted of homophonic recitation of the fairly long text, sometimes jumpy and syncopated, more often smooth and melodious. The chorus’s fine diction nearly made the projected supertitles unnecessary, and its wonderfully accurate intonation made Ticheli’s tonal harmonies glow.

Baritone Ott returned for a brief solo in the last movement, abandoning his Stanfordian stiff upper lip to utter a gentle prayer for love in the world.

After the work’s quiet close, an oceanic wave of applause washed over the conductor, chorus, orchestra, poet, and composer as they stood on the Carnegie Hall stage.

The New York Choral Society and Orchestra will perform Bach’s Mass in B minor 8 p.m. May 8 in Carnegie Hall.; 212-247-3878.

2 Responses to “The sea and “The Shore” gleam in vivid program from New York Choral Society”

  1. Posted Feb 13, 2018 at 10:58 am by Louise De Cormier

    Lovely review of what must have been a wonderful concert. And about time the Times paid attention! Wish I had been able to be there to hear it. I know Bob would have been so pleased.
    All the best to David and the chorus.

  2. Posted Feb 13, 2018 at 11:42 am by Mary Jo Page

    The entire concert was sublime with beautiful choice of pieces.
    The chorus under David Hayes’ commendable direction
    was absolutely exceptional.

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