Gifted Choral Society Doesn't Disappoint

Jan Stribula 


DANBURY - The Connecticut Choral Society and Orchestra returned to St. Peter's Church in Danbury on Friday night for another exquisitely executed performance. In its 26th year, the CCS has become a highly acclaimed and accomplished choral ensemble, performing in venues from their local base of operations in South Britain to Carnegie Hall in New York City. Music Director and Conductor John Robert Liepold led the 70 voice chorus and the CCS Orchestra, with Associate Conductor Eric Knapp and Mary Nelson on keyboards. The program consisted of liturgical texts set to the music of baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and modern minimalist Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). And what better setting could one hope to find for this performance than the cavernous cathedral at St. Peter's. The acoustics and views certainly could vary, depending on your seat, but the overall atmosphere of the church was just right for this program. 

​Opening with Bach's "Concerto for Two violins in D Minor, BWV 1043," we had an opportunity to appreciate the CCS Orchestra unaccompanied by the chorus. The young violinists Aaron Brown and Amie Weiss played well together, delightfully weaving familiar baroque melodies, sometimes with, at other times against the rest of the orchestra. The largo movement was particularly poetic for the two soloists.

​One of Bach's more ambitious motets, "Jesu, Meine Freude, BWV 227," is considered to be a priceless treasure of choral literature. Composed with incredible structural symmetry, its 11 movements alternate text from Paul's Epistle to the Romans with Johann Frank's hymn, "Jesus, my joy." Everyone could readily enjoy such a well-balanced piece. The chorus performed this sacred motet with all the dramatic precision required by Bach's architecture, covering a lot of musical, spiritual and emotional ground. Sung in German, I wasn't sure of the literal meaning of all the text, but regardless, it was clear that Bach's composition was a highly organized work.

​This was not to be the case with Arvo Pärt's prayer to God, "Te Deum." Pärt stated "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence comforts me." Composed in 1984-85 after contemplating his compositional style during an extended period of silence, "Te Deum" draws heavily on the single note motif. With compelling intensity, the piece loosely pursues thematic development with a strange energy that imparts a sense of passage but lacks well-defined beginnings or endings. The feeling of timelessness, with ripples of notes coming and going from out of nowhere, reminds me of a long cross country drive, passing gently rolling landscapes that really are changing, even if it doesn't seem like much is happening. Not an easy piece to perform, the CCS covered this otherworldly musical landscape in fine form. Organist Mary Nelson may not have had many notes to play but she had to be on her toes, getting her entrances in at the right places. Liepold noted that Pärt's "Magnificat" was performed last weekend by the Danbury Concert Chorus, and he considered this “Pärt double-play” to be unprecedented for Danbury.  

​I hope the precedent has been set to hear many more such compelling performances of the work of this intriguing composer.

Old and New in Choral Society Concert

Jim Pegolotti 


​NEWTOWN - Music of high quality, and lots of it, is the hallmark of any concert by John Liepold and the Connecticut Choral Society. And for last Saturday evening's Christmas concert in Trinity Church, the crowd was standing room only. The concert featured Part I of Handel's "Messiah," the Christmas portion of this three-part work, and Benjamin Broening's "Wit Wonders." This work was commissioned by the Society and performed first in 2001. 

​Liepold led the orchestra first in the "Concerto Grosso in C Minor" by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), a composer much admired by Handel. Corelli titled this work "Fatto per la notta di Natale" (Composed for the evening of Christmas), thus its name, "Christmas Concerto." The final portion, a pastorale, is believed to have inspired Handel to include in "Messiah" a similar depiction of the shepherd's place in the Christmas story.

The "Messiah" performance found the 65 chorus members excellent in tone and with words well-enunciated. In tenor Scott Williamson's only aria, "Comfort Ye," his strong voice easily overcame an orchestra that throughout "Messiah" seemed a bit too loud. His added embellishments increased interest. Baritone Boyd Schlaefer's voice was perfectly suited for both his arias. In fact, his "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts" had everything one could hope for in textual emphasis and beauty of tone. It was the solo voice highlight of "Messiah." Though both mezzo soprano Julie De Vaere and soprano Michelle McBride were well suited to their arias, their light voices sometimes were covered by the orchestra. Nonetheless, they especially evoked the beauty of text and voice in their arias, "He shall feed His flock," and "Come unto Him." 

​I compliment conductor and chorus in an unusual and, to me, absolutely correct approach in the chorus "For unto us a Child is born." Traditionally, when singing, "And his name shall be called: Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God," a chorus will follow the word "called" with a gargantuan "Wonderful." Instead here the word was sung lightly, almost pianissimo. The choral volume then moved up through "Counselor" to a maximum with "The Mighty God." Now that makes eminent sense to me. Wonderful. But then a question. Why was the magnificent chorus that ends Part I, "His Yoke is Easy," replaced by the "Hallelujah Chorus," which ends Part II? Well, I will admit that by that time in the concert, I was ready to stand up.

Benjamin's Broening's "Wit Wonders: Midwinter Mystery" is delightfully lyrical. It is based on five religious texts, each focusing on the mystery of the birth of Christ. Whether in unison, or in harmony, the sounds from the chorus were pleasing to hear, and special woodwind effects populated the orchestral accompaniment. Most impressive was the composer's version of the "beautiful, rather dark Coventry Carol" (Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child). There was great variety in volume, with a mighty fortissimo at the words: "Herod the King in his raging." Plucked strings and an oboe gave a nice underpinning, and the simple fade-out was effective. "Wit Wonders" is a composition that deserves wide hearing. Broening was present for the performance. He is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Richmond.

​Audience members rarely leave a Connecticut Choral Society Christmas concert without exercising their own vocal chords. Here, at the program's conclusion, the lights dimmed and the choristers lined up along the walls of the church. While the audience sang "Silent Night," the chorus sang a counterpoint melody of "Peace, Peace." What a wonderful way to end a Christmas concert.

Choral Society Scores in French Music

Jim Pegolotti 


​DANBURY - The 25th anniversary season for the Connecticut Choral Society concluded with a concert performed in the neo-gothic Saint Peter Church. Its theme was "French Impressions" and the Friday evening event drew a very large crowd. As can always be expected from the Choral Society and its conductor John Robert Liepold, an unusually interesting musical evening resulted. Music by two of the great French composers of the 20th century was featured: Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and Maurice Durufle (1902-1986). Two of Poulenc's works comprised the first half of the program; Duruflé's "Requiem" was the second half.

​Poulenc, a rare combination of Gallic wit and seriousness, once referred to himself as "part monk, part guttersnipe." This duality produced works that are at the extremes of the sacred and profane. For example, his opera "Dialogue of the Carmelites" goes to the depths of religious beliefs that lead to martyrdom, while his one-act opera "The Breasts of Teresias" is earthy, surrealist and comic.Poulenc, a baptized Catholic, returned to the faith of his fathers after the death of a close friend in a car accident in 1936, which drew him to visit the statue of the Black Virgin in the centuries-old pilgrimage site in the canyon at Rocamadour. The very next week he wrote the short ten-minute work "Litanies a la vierge Noire" ("Litanies to the Black Virgin") for women's voices, consisting of 20 petitions to God and the Blessed Virgin. Eric Dale Knapp, associate conductor of the chorus, directed this ten-minute work. Indeed, the women's voices effortlessly floated throughout the church, as Poulenc himself had requested, "simply, without pretension." After the quiet of the initial petitions to the Holy Trinity, there came at the first petition to Mary a forceful and effective fortissimo. An agitated portion then led to the peaceful conclusion, and a highly laudable performance.

​Variety in a concert is admirable, so I applaud the decision to have not only the choral music of Poulenc, but his Organ Concerto, with Aleeza Meir as organ soloist. Here is a work in which the jazzy world of 1930s Paris meets the structured world of Bach. With Liepold's downbeat came the initial chords, a mighty organ blast, which clearly took a great number of members of the audience by surprise. It certainly proved that the Saint Peter pipe organ had power. In recordings, balancing the power of the organ with the orchestra is relatively easy; it isn't in a church where the organ is to the rear and the orchestra in the front. Unfortunately too often that power in the six-movement work did overwhelm the 22-member chamber orchestra (at least from my seat two-thirds of the way back in the church). Liepold did provide jaunty rhythms when needed and in the organless moments, the beauty of Poulenc's orchestral writing came through admirably.

​The Duruflé "Requiem" is an acknowledged 20th century masterpiece. Duruflé, unlike Poulenc, had only one side, that of a "monk." He was a devout Catholic and an organist by training. His devotion to his religion led him to base his Requiem on the traditional ancient Gregorian melodies of the Mass of the Dead. All the most familiar Requiems (Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, Faure) have portions for soloists; Durufle instead preferred to place the entire burden of singing on the chorus.That the 70-member Connecticut Choral Society was up to the challenge goes without question. In the initial measures of the "Introit" of the Mass, the male voices intoned the ancient melody of "Requiem aeternum," while female voices, like angels, breathed out heavenly "Ahs" as an underpinning. As the program notes of Dennis Keene stated, it is "one of the great openings in music." Duruflé's main purpose here and throughout the work is to provide a sense of peace and tranquillity in the face of inevitable death. Liepold's singers projected that throughout, always with the finest tone and balance of voices.

​If Duruflé had written nothing else but the "Sanctus" for the Requiem, he would still have become famous. From a tranquil beginning, it mounts in intensity to a "Hosanna" of incredible power. Joined by the organ, the orchestra and chorus made of it what it should be: an unforgettable explosion of praise to God. There are several other segments of intensity in the Requiem, such as in the "Libera Me" segment ("Deliver me from eternal death"), but as did the beginning chords, the final "In Paradisum" delivered calm and peace. A fine performance and a noble ending for 25 years of bringing Connecticut music of high quality.

'Fanfares' Energizes Choral Society Audience

Jim Pegolotti


DANBURY - Silver is the traditional color for a 25th anniversary celebration. However, the Connecticut Choral Society last Sunday chose to mark its quarter century of life with the golden color of brass in a "Fanfares" concert. John Robert Liepold, music director, led the 60-voice choral group, augmented by a 13-member brass and percussion ensemble of professional players. A special part of the concert, held in Danbury's First Congregational Church, was the participation by the Shepaug High School Chorus. Not only did its appearance exemplify the Society's support of young people in music, but also brought back Christopher Shay, the man who founded the Choral Society. Shay is the conductor of the Shepaug chorus and also led several works on the program.

It was a long program. Two-and-a-quarter hours after the 4 p.m. starting time, the final dramatic statement by chorus and brass of "Gloria" by John Rutter (b. 1945) brought the audience to its feet. Before that, seven other choral pieces and three brass fanfares had been heard. In addition, during intermission audience members had observed a complicated traffic pattern of chorus members and brass players moving from balcony to sanctuary and vice versa; the fascinating movement may well have been organized by I-84 civil engineers.The reason for the transfer of choristers and brass players was to place performers throughout the beautiful balconied church to perform several works of rich Renaissance polyphony. This approximated what Giovanni Gabrieli (1558-1613) had done in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice. Indeed all this physical movement produced a memorable version of Gabrieli's "O Magnum Mysterium" in real "surround sound." The musical forces, at all points of the compass, were conducted expertly by a pivoting Eric Dale Knapp, the Society's new associate conductor and accompanist. 

​But beauty of sound can occur in quieter, simpler ways, as in "Os Justi" ("The mouth of the righteous shall speak wisdom") by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Led by Liepold, with the Shepaug singers in the front of the sanctuary and the others placed throughout the balcony, the deeply felt spirituality of Bruckner emerged with clarity.Similarly successful in its quiet effectiveness was the performance by the Shepaug choristers of "Ubi Caritas" by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). How wonderful to hear such a fine group of young singers.This holiday concert had a homey, family touch, with the audience joining in singing several carols and CCS alumni wending their way forward to join the current choristers in Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." The result was distinctly robust.

​Two major works particularly tested the Society singers: "To Saint Cecilia" by Norman Dello Joio (b. 1913) and Rutter's "Gloria." In both cases, the brass and percussion gave excellent support. Dello Joio is an American composer who has produced many works of a religious nature. This uplifting composition, celebrating the patron saint of musicians, tests a chorus from pianissimo to fortissimo. What I heard here, and throughout the concert, was a chorus excellently balanced between female and male voices and responsive to the wishes of the conductor. Dello Joio based his work on the text of a poem by John Dryden and uses a trumpet (often referred to in the text as a symbol of majestic music) to punctuate this ode to Saint Cecilia. The impressive solo work was by trumpeter Michael Gorham. Also notable were Aaron Korn, French horn, and Alex Regazzi, trombone. 

​I've never been a great fan of the choral music of John Rutter, but one has to admit that his 1974 "Gloria," when accompanied by brass, percussion, and organ, does raise a "mighty sound to the Lord." Still, how better to end a Christmas concert than with a work that begins: "Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, good will towards men." It was an ambitious concert, which celebrated the past, but with fanfares announced an equally positive musical future.

Choral Concert Sung with Finesse

Howard Tuvelle


DANBURY - When is a symphony not a symphony? If you attended the Connecticut Choral Society's concert on Sunday, you might know the answer. Conductor John Robert Liepold put together a varied and interesting program featuring several fine vocal soloists. He also employed accompanying instruments such as the harpsichord, piano, organ, and a Baroque string ensemble.The program, given in Danbury's First Congregational Church, began appropriately with "Hear My Prayer, O Lord," by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). This opener was sung without accompaniment and seemed both fitting by title and mood for the location of its performance. It was sung with finesse and beauty of tone, wetting one's appetite for more.

​The "more" came with the main entrée of the first half of the program - yes, the symphony of which it is not! The "Symphony Of Psalms," by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The composer did not use the typical 19th century symphonic form, perhaps having the Baroque idea of "sinfonia" (to sound) more in mind. Nor did the composer use violins, violas, or clarinets, which he thought too "sentimental" for this religious work. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1930, it was first performed by them the same year. With the absence of strings it is often performed with only the piano. Such was this performance, accompanied by excellent duo-pianists (one piano, four hands). The chorus seemed at ease and in full command of the composer's often stark and angular themes and harmonies. Sectional entrances were sharp and conductor Liepold kept singers and accompaniment in perfect sync. It was a fine performance. 

​The lyrical and almost rapturous "Hear My Prayer," by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), without the "O Lord," of which there had been plenty by this time, opened the second half. It was accompanied by the string ensemble. Susanne Peck, soprano, was the soloist in this altogether moving work. Her voice was clear and possessed an almost bell-like purity. 

​Alas came the afternoon's "tour de force:" "Dixit Dominus," by G. F. Handel (1685-1759). A young Handel in his 20s, he composed a work with uncompromising and ferocious demands on singers, conductor and orchestra. Using Psalm 110 as its text, with long melismatic passages (one syllable but many notes), the demands require exactness of pitch, dexterity, and fluidity of vocal technique. Notable solos (and notable for many notes seems the word!) came together in the "Dominus a dextris tuis" (The Lord at thy right hand shall strike) and were given by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Caruana, whose sensuous upper range seemed to project more than the lower. It is a warm and rich quality. Bass-baritone Boyd Schlaefer's voice is likened to a fine, rich maduro cigar, and his solo added the needed element of contrast from the two sopranos. It was a perfect day and perfect place to hear the perfect instrument of the human voice, so splendidly wrought by the Connecticut Choral Society.

​Choral Society's 'Candlelight Concert' Draws Enthusiastic Applause

Jim Pegolotti


DANBURY - The Connecticut Choral Society's "Candlelight Concert" on Friday evening in Danbury's First Congregational Church provided a welcome and unusual holiday program.  John Robert Liepold, the music director of the 65-voice chorus, programmed the rarely performed cantata "Saint Nicolas," composed in 1946 by Benjamin Britten, the great British composer. After intermission, several short works of the Christmas season preceded Johann Sebastian Bach's "Magnificat," a masterpiece 200 years older than the Britten work. 

​To perform "Saint Nicolas," Liepold needed, besides his chorus, the very fine Chamber Singers of the Vassar College Women's Chorus, four young boy sopranos from New Canaan's St. Luke's Boys Choir, a 21-piece orchestra, and a tenor soloist. The seven-part cantata, an hour in length, utilizes a tenor as Saint Nicolas to describe in song some of the saint's religious feelings. Throughout the work, choral forces comment on events in Nicolas' life, such as the journey to Palestine on a storm-tossed boat, as well as his miraculous resuscitation of "three pickled boys" from a briny barrel. There is nothing in the cantata to suggest the Santa Claus into which Saint Nicolas (a man of many legends) has been transformed.

​Hearing such a lengthy work by Britten for the first time is musically like New England weather - if you don't particularly like what's happening at the moment, just wait and something more interesting will come along. The music varies from lyrical folk-like melodies, as in the waltzlike "Birth of Nicolas," to intensely agitated musical phrasing accompanying the Saint's discourse of his years in prison. Scott Williamson in the role of Saint Nicolas sang with variety of tone and feeling. Especially noteworthy was the playing of the excellent instrumental ensemble, clearly providing evidence of Britten's mastery of tonal color, especially through the use of piano, cymbals, and snare drums. Because of the large choral forces and limited sanctuary space, Liepold was forced to divide his singers: tenors and baritones were front and center below the beautiful pipe organ, while sopranos and altos faced each other from the side portions of the front balcony. In the rear of the balcony were the Chamber Singers from Vassar. Since much of Britten's choral writing is in unison, with an underpinning of harmonic instrumental accompaniment, such dispersal of forces actually increased the quality and warmth of the choral sound. And when needed, as in such portions as the storm-tossed ship journey of the saint, Liepold drew strong bursts of radiant sonorities from his chorus.

​The dispersal of vocal forces, however, did not benefit the "Magnificat" performance. Bach's polyphonic choral writing demands a lightness and rhythmical precision that was lessened by the separation of the voices between the balcony and main floor. However, thanks to fine pacing by Liepold, the music still had the stamp of Bach's genius. Of the four soloists, mezzo-soprano Kelly Van Horne provided the strongest vocal presence. All in all, the pleasure gained from the variety and overall quality of the presentations, including a rousing "Hallelujah Chorus," brought enthusiastic applause from the audience. Conductor Liepold and the Connecticut Choral Society, in its 23rd year, are an important part of western Connecticut's cultural offerings. 

Bach Mass Won't Soon Be Forgotten

Frank Merkling


DANBURY - Bach's B-Minor Mass is a colossal edifice, but one with its charming nooks and crannies no less than towering architecture. John Robert Liepold elicited both facets in the performance he led Sunday in the First Congregational Church by his Connecticut Choral Society plus singers from the Yale Camerata and members of the Yale Philharmonia Orchestra, a reprise of their Friday evening performance at Yale’s Woolsey Hall.Although the sheer number of voices presented a problem - solved by Liepold by putting tenors and basses behind the orchestra but sopranos and altos on opposite sides of the balcony – which made coordination a challenge. But things soon fell into place in a performance marked by strong contrast.

The severe, fugal Kyrie sections were relieved by a sweet Christe Eleison from the well-matched team of Susanne Peck, soprano, and Kellie J. Van Horn, alto. Altogether joyous was Bach's Gloria, with its swirling "Et in terra pax," a rhythmically tricky "Laudamus te" (Peck solo), a "Gratias agimus" flowering from nothing, a flute-led "Domine Deus" for Peck and light tenor Scott Williamson, a slow and sobering "Qui tollis," Van Horn's vibrant "Qui sedes," bass Robert Gardner's stentorian "Quoniam," and a peppy "Cum sancto spiritu."

The Credo, likewise in nine sections but shaped like a palindrome, begins and ends in brave plainchant-based melody. Its heart, of course, is the richly harmonized "Crucifixus," after which an image of resurrection pulls all the stops. Basso Gardner's higher, more lyrical "Et in spiritum sanctum" flowed nicely, the "Confiteor" marched steadily and a belief in life to come was sheer triumph. 

​The surging parallelism of Bach's Sanctus found Maestro Liepold wholly in the spirit. All his forces joined in the eight-part "Osannas," tenor Williamson flew high in the "Benedictus" and alto Van Horn sang sumptuously in the slow-paced but remarkably modern-sounding Agnus Dei – spare, syncopated, angular. The final Dona Nobis achieved a great, soaring peace.  Amen.

Some Novelties in Yuletide Music

Frank Merkling


NEWTOWN - The Connecticut Choral Society gave us a quick course in the development of Christmas music Saturday night at St. Rose of Lima Church. The 70 choristers filed in singing a conductus from the 13th century - wondrously strong music at the very dawn of counterpoint.

​Then we heard the "Midnight Christmas Mass" of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a master of the Louis XIV era who's been called next to Lully the most remarkable figure in French music.  Charpentier studied in Italy with Carissimi and brought back a direct style that here includes basing each of the Mass' five movements on a French carol. The result, conducted with brisk authority by John Robert Liepold, proved compact and not awash in the ornaments later associated with French baroque. A vigorous Kyrie, contrapuntal Gloria, slow and meaty Credo, happy Sanctus – it all was so accessible you wondered why Charpentier is heard so little.

​Next, a fast forward to Bach, the culmination of baroque style.The Sanctus from Bach's great B-Minor Mass is for a six-part chorus, well articulated here and of grand architecture indeed. The florid Hosanna was followed by the Benedictus, a flute-and-tenor duet – here done by Frances Harmeyer of the 20-piece orchestra and Scott Williamson, who has a carrying tenor voice – then the stately, earnest Dona Nobis Pacem.

​After intermission came some audience participation. "O Come, All Ye Faithful" was followed by the premiere of "Wit Wonders: Midwinter Mystery" by Benjamin Broening, an American born in Paris who grew up in Baltimore, now teaches in Virginia and was commissioned to compose this piece by the CCS. Broening's title is that of a 14th-century poem about the Nativity's mysteries. The music, modest and heartfelt, ranges from modal spareness to upscale folkiness and a "Simple Gifts"-type ending for which the audience joined in. The most telling of five movements was a dark setting of the Coventry Carol, led into by tiptoeing pizzicato. What could conclude things but Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus?

Choral Society Gives Fine Reading

Frank Merkling 


NEWTOWN - John Liepold led off his second season as music director of the Connecticut Choral Society with a dose of the past and a hint of things to come. St. Rose of Lima Church was packed for a program that ran from Monteverdi to James Bassi, a 39-year-old U.S. composer who has worked a lot in theater. The 70-voice chorus was in fine form for the processional, a 13th-century conductus that sounded like "Sumer Is Icumen In," even if togetherness is hard to maintain with forces so spread out. The "Chichester Psalms" of Bernstein, written between "West Side Story" (1957) and "Mass" (1971), came next and supported the theory that this composer was most at home in stage music.  His bag of tricks - 7/4 and 5/4 time, blue notes, some acidulous harmony - doesn't always mesh well with the message of hope in these wonderful Hebrew texts. That message shone forth most clearly in the complicated lines sung with assurance and accuracy by boy soprano Ben Gagné. The chorus had it easier.

​As for the Connecticut premiere of Bassi's "Carol Symphony," based on Ukrainian and Irish and English tunes, it came across as skillful, busy, eclectic and evocative, with an amplified midsection for mezzo-soprano (here Cheryl Lichtenstein) against the chorus in vocalise.  The singers and the 20-piece orchestra gave a fine reading, right up to a syncopated climax that could have been Sondheim.

But the classics were the best. The Magnificat that ends Monteverdi's 1610 "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin" which Liepold will conduct in toto next spring is indeed magnificent. Florid high solos against a slow cantus firmus.  Instruments that purl or blare minimally.  How this must have sounded in St. Mark's! It sounded great here, and so did Bruckner's unaccompanied hymn "Virga (Root of) Jesse," by a traditional composer who could still ask for difficult modulations.

Choral Society Debut Sparkles

Frank Merkling 


NEWTOWN - The start of the Connecticut Choral Society's 20th season Friday coincided with the debut of its new music director, John Robert Liepold.

It was an auspicious debut. Liepold, a conductor with an economical style, can turn brisk and arm-sweeping when it counts, and he conveys a sense of time. For his first concert, in St. Rose of Lima Church, he chose works that spanned 11 centuries.

​First came two from the century that's about to expire. By Francis Poulenc, born 100 years ago, they were "Four Motets for Christmastime" and the familiar "Gloria" (1959). The motets vary from the French composer's manner of spiced declamation to a flatter, more "Russian" sound and then to bouncy and crisp, all delivered here without accompaniment.They were sung by the CCS Chamber Singers, some 20 strong. 

After the full complement of 70 had filed in from both sides of the church, bearing candles and singing the beautiful 9th-century plainchant "Veni Emmanuel," the chorus was joined by soprano Susanne Peck and an able chamber orchestra, plus organist Joseph Jacovino Jr. The "Gloria" is mettlesome music now dramatic in the mode of Stravinsky, now jauntily crossover in a Parisian-pop mode. Peck had two solos, both beginning "Domine Deus," the first with fearful highs and the second with insinuating harmony to cradle her light, clear voice. The choral work was expert in spite of a few hitches: a premature entry, an errant pitch, a haphazard attempt at parallel fifths in the 9th-century chant. 

​Liepold took it all in stride. Here and in the J.S. Bach excerpts that followed, he conducted with a spacious pace that seemed appropriate to so large a body of singers. Three movements from the "Gloria" of Bach's B-Minor Mass brought Peck back for the central "Laudamus Te," where she rose to the challenge of her florid solo. The passage “Et in Terra Pax” was sung by the chorus as a fittingly heartfelt plea at this time of year, and the excerpts ended with a “Gratias Agimus Tibi” featuring entries that quietly blossomed into a grand ending. 

Notwithstanding a continual threat of rain, the CCS faithful filled the broad and warm-sounding church and joined in three of the traditional carols that followed intermission.

The Choral Art: Senses and the Sacred

Kathy O’Connell


MIDDLETOWN - Saturday’s concert for chorus, soloists, and orchestra at the Wesleyan University Chapel, conducted by John Liepold, was an entirely satisfactory event.  In fact, it was a splendid event.  The opening sounds of the processional “Veni Sancte Spiritus” — a solemn summoning — set the stage for Lenten motets of Victoria and Lotti, the premiere of Benjamin Broening’s moving setting of “When David Heard”, and J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden.”The second half opened with a male sextet performing Paul Patterson’s “Time Piece” (1972).  Written for the virtuosic King’s Singers, this demanding aleatoric romp is Patterson’s tongue-in-cheek alteration of the Creation story, in which Adam falls from grace by falling prey to a wristwatch!  The concert closed with the full chorus and orchestra in Leonard Bernstein’s complex and exciting “Chichester Psalms.”  

​The whole experience was musically, visually, and emotionally a fine one. Clearly Liepold had spent a great deal of time and effort in selecting the program, in providing the listeners with a solid notion of his own understanding of the various kinds of periods and pieces to be performed, and in training his singers and instrumentalists in such a way that they seemed always to be confidently involved in the performing, and secure in the leadership they were receiving from the conductor. It was an evening of rich sonorities, clear diction, admirable intonation, and passionate commitment.  But, beyond that, Liepold provided a wonderful shape to the program.  He has a real gift for making the whole work together.  Each section of the evening had a life of its own, but also fitted appropriately into the sequence of sounds and texts, so that everything complemented all the rest.