The U-M Chamber Choir
Blackstone's crackerjack choir
Two things are immediately apparent the first time you hear the U-M School of Music Chamber Choir under Jerry Blackstone. First, that the Choir is a crackerjack group of thirty-four singers with a richly varied tone, a smoothly polished technique, and a seamlessly balanced ensemble. Second, that Blackstone can apparently work his choral magic with any group of singers--from the mighty and massive amateur Choral Union to the smaller but still sonorous student chamber choir. Both things were manifest in the mixed program they performed together in the new Stamps Auditorium on a rainswept night in early October.
The performances were entirely satisfying, especially the extended sequence of choral works by Felix Mendelssohn, whose 200th birthday the classical world celebrates this year. Among the surfeit of "Scottish" symphonies and the plethora of "Italians," it's also good to hear the romantic composer's sometimes purer and nobler, sometimes saucier and more sentimental, but always underperformed choral works. Blackstone selected an ascetic series of the German composer's sacred a cappella pieces, followed by a sweet set of secular duets with piano, and concluded with a lusty series of secular works for full chorus.
The chamber choir excelled as an ensemble in the first and last sets, but its individual strengths shone brightest in the duets. Each singer alone was charming enough, but together they were twice as delightful. Particularly ingenious was the device of having chorus members declaim the poems prior to each duet, serving to put an ironic aesthetic distance between the performers and the material and to let the audience know what the singers were going on about. (Particularly challenging were the program notes, printed upside down and backwards, which defied the collective intelligence of the performers and the audience to decipher.)
Less than entirely satisfying to a few was the world premiere of Kristin Kuster's Bleed. Said by the composer to describe the mystical-erotic ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena, the extremely expressive work is scored for chorus plus
string quartet, harp, and percussionist and set to a postmodernist melange of styles from late Stravinsky to early Madonna. While neither the composer's skill and integrity nor the performers' sincerity and dedication can be gainsaid, some audience members were more taken with the work than others: most applauded, though a few sat on their hands. Entirely satisfying was the final work on the program, an arrangement of "Peace Like a River" that the choir performed with surpassing loveliness.
The U-M Chamber Choir is at the UMMA on Wednesday, April 14.
[Originally published in April, 2010.]