Review: 25th Anniversary National Conference (part 5)

By Walter Saul

Concert 2: Choir & Organ

The Provine Chapel at Mississippi College is a breathtakingly wonderful place for music as well as simply being a beautiful worship center. It was constructed in 1860 and, according to Mississippi College’s website, www.mc.edu, remains the oldest building on campus. I can only imagine how much it has meant to the Mississippi College community, because, though the Chapel turns 160 years old this year, it is such a well-maintained and lovingly cared for structure that, in some ways, it looks and acts as if it were just unveiled to the public.

In 160 years the Provine Chapel is bound to have seen some history, and, indeed, shots of the Civil War pierced several of its windows not long after its opening, and it became a hospital, interestingly enough, for wounded soldiers from the North, fighting under General U. S. Grant, the future Reconstructionist president of the reunited nation. You sense some of that history as you ascend a lot of steep stairs to the second level, where you enter the Chapel. And then you discover what an incredible place it is to hear choral and organ music, the focus of our second concert, which took place Friday, October 18, 2019, at 3:30 pm.

The Chapel has stunning acoustics. There is just enough reverberation to make all the performers sound marvelous, but not so much that it overwhelms the actual musicmaking. The program opened with Neil Stipp’s eclectic Sonatina for Alto Sax and Organ, a combination I have never experienced before, live or recorded. After hearing this wonderful work, I have to wonder why this pairing of instruments has not happened much. The first movement, Dorian Prelude, features the solo oboe stop over quiet chords in G Dorian, which at once complements, yet contrasts the saxophone. There is a lovely cadenza displaying the rarer classical side of the saxophone and leading to the return of the quiet opening, but ending quite rambunctiously! This practically begs the saxophone to show its other side, which happens quite effectively in the second movement, Jazz Aria. Many of the sonorities here remind me of the music of Leo Sowerby, one of my favorite composers, who so eloquently combined the harmonies of the jazz of his younger years with the high music of the Anglican church tradition. On the other hand, the bright and chipper Rondo recalls the organ music of Paul Hindemith in a winsome way. The fine performance by Craig Young, saxophonist, and Benjamin Williams, organist, set the bar high for the rest of the concert.

Hindemith’s love of chords built on perfect fourths (quartal harmony) also figures prominently in the first two of Brandon Kreuze’s Three Chorale Preludes, so ably performed, once again, by Benjamin Williams at the organ. It’s hard to imagine how Williams found the time to prepare these works and others so well for performance while managing and coordinating this Conference! The first two preludes, GENEVAN 42 and Vater Unser, also recall the utter simplicity of Benjamin Britten, who often wove profoundly beautiful soundscapes with the barest of melodic and harmonic elements. I would have welcomed, however, more of a difference between these two preludes. The third prelude, Old 100th, is a joyous tour de force, with its boisterous melody in the pedal against virtuosic repeated fast notes in the manual, somewhat recalling Ralph Vaughan Williams’ choral setting of that famous tune.

At this juncture, the Mississippi College Singers, directed by Mark Nabholz, took the stage to perform seven choral works by CFAMC members. This choir is well trained and sings with much precision and polish, certainly one of the flagship ensembles of Mississippi College. They complemented the splendid resonance of the Chapel in spellbinding ways in all seven anthems. They were well supported by Robert Knupp, organist, and Rachel Storey and Brittany Parry, pianists. Chandler Smith, a graduate conducting student, ably directed several of the anthems.

The Infinite a Sudden Guest presents the high energy and rhythms of composer Josh Rodriguez, who adds a djembe, which he played, and shaker to the choir and piano. His wife, Mary Vanhoozer, also performed a gorgeous violin obbligato, which emerged beautifully during the more reflective middle section. Alas, the percussion submerged the violin descant in the opening and closing sections, but the stunning contrast portrays well God’s otherness and His desire to live with mankind, His creation.

O Come, Let Us Sing unto the Lord is a new anthem I wrote for the retirement of our music administrative assistant at Fresno Pacific University, where I work. The choir brought great exuberance to this triumphant text and celebratory music, and certainly realized my vision in magnificent style.

Lawrence Mumford’s Open the Gates has dedicated two college music buildings and its middle section depicts the music resounding throughout these buildings through the echoing of the voice parts with each other. This lofty setting of parts of the 118th Psalm well fits these occasions.

David Caudill’s Children of Your Light is a subdued setting of a poem by Mississippian poet Terry Everett who was richly inspired by places of both natural and manmade beauty. Caudill writes: “A new stained-glass window in the church inspired this poem, with its reference to the rainbow of light and the quietness of the sanctuary as the prayers of thanksgiving are heard beyond the stars.” Caudill has masterfully set this poem in the voice of an introit that effectively intones the entrance of the pastor and prepares us quietly, yet grandly, for worship. The rainbow of light is beautifully reflected in the calmly unfolding chords and the Lydian mode followed by several dramatic modulations. We were treated to a fine world première of this work.

I thought I had grown tired of Be Thou My Vision until Benjamin Williams, yes the same one mentioned above, brought it to new life with his stunning arrangement. Huge chords proclaim a grand vision as Williams deftly moves between major and minor keys to expand the musical space of this proclamation. There are breathtaking modulations and, for one verse, a spellbinding descant, all exquisitely presented by the Mississippi College Singers.

The Singers closed the program by sharing two of their Fall program works: a fetching setting of O magnum mysterium by Lavinia Kell Parker reminiscent of Morten Lauridsen and I Will Lay Down, a precious setting of Psalm 4:6 by Julius Tipton, a 1964 Mississippi College graduate and Presbyterian minister, in honor of Mississippi College Music Department Chair Richard Joyner. The quiet beginning in the pentatonic scale leads to dramatic tone clusters before a warm and “safe” ending that captures the peaceful promise of safety from the Lord.