Tom Purdom, classical music reviewer for the Broad Street Review, writes, “Good a cappella choral music requires strong voices, good harmony, close coordination, and astute selections. The Chestnut Street Singers scored in all four categories.”
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NEW VOICES IN TOWN
Published June 20, 2011
The Chestnut Street Singers comprise a 12-voice “cooperative chamber chorus” that presented its debut concert at the beginning of this season. I missed the Singers’ first two concerts, but their third event indicated that they’re another example of the creative ferment of Philadelphia’s music scene.
Good a cappella choral music requires strong voices, good harmony, close coordination, and astute selections. The Chestnut Street Singers scored in all four categories. Their voices all sound good together, and the individual voices made an impression every time someone launched into a brief solo.
The program featured music by a roster of American composers that ranged from the 18th-Century father of American choral music, William Billings, to 31-year-old Abbie Betinis. Every entry made heavy use of counterpoint as well as the other musical devices that substitute for the color and variety instruments add to accompanied choral music.
In a good a cappella choral setting, the composer’s musical embellishments and complexities perform two functions simultaneously: They enhance the mood of the text, and they create music that would be interesting and appealing if you didn’t understand a word the singers were singing. Most of the selections on the program met that test.
Clear female voices
The opener, Long Time Traveler, provided an effective preview of coming attractions. The arrangement by choir member Jordan Rock was a rearrangement of two versions: the original four-part arrangement published by Edmund Dumas in 1859, and a modern three-part arrangement by a Canadian folk trio, The Wailin’ Jennys.
Rock’s rearrangement included an evocative opening by a trio of exceptionally clear female voices; two complex arrangements of the rest of the text; and a lively interlude in which the whole chorus sang the melody in the four syllables used in the 19th-Century teaching technique called “shape note singing.”
From Copland to Garcia Lorca
The rest of the program included four religious motets by Aaron Copland; Billings’s moving setting of They that go down to the sea in ships; British composer Michael Tippet’s powerful, highly embellished 1941 settings of Steal Away and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; and a setting of a Garcia Lorca poem by the contemporary American choral master Eric Whitacre.
Abbie Betinis’s Long Time Traveling brought the afternoon to a close with a piece that lifted texts and melodies from three 19th Century shape note songs and transformed them into another rousing exercise in relevant complexifying.
The Chestnut Street Singers’ first concert of the 2011-12 season is called “Axis of Medieval,” and it’s scheduled for November 6. If this concert was typical of their work, they should become a favorite with the kind of audiences that Lyric Fest has been attracting to its art song programs.