Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
At Binghamton’s Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church Sunday afternoon (April 21), the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton celebrated earth, air, fire and water, keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of yin and yang, the Chinese concept for which the concert was named.
The program was divided into parts that celebrated first “The Elements,” then “Waking and Sleeping,” “Spring and Summer” and one more that I’ll save until the end of this review.
I never managed to catch the choir when led by its celebrated founder, Anne Boyer Cotten, but I felt privileged to hear the singers at this concert, part of their 35th season, under the baton of Artistic Director Bruce Borton and the able piano of John Isenberg.
Isenberg accompanied Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind,” set to music by Arthur Whiting, and the very exciting world premiere of Timothy Michael Rolls’ settings of three Katherine Mansfield poems: “Very Early Spring,” “A Fine Day” and “The Storm.” Rolls is a former adjunct professor in theory and composition at Binghamton University. I hope the choir will perform these songs again in the not-too-distant future.
In Trinity, an acoustic jewel that must have been built with a choir of angels in mind, the voices of 14 sopranos, 13 altos, eight tenors,and 12 basses layered over each other with beautiful, rich harmonies, and as much confidence as any choir could possibly have displayed during the more difficult portions of the program.
I apologize for arriving late and missing some of the choir’s trademark madrigals. I did, however, catch the tail end of a piece by contemporary composer David Conte. “Charm Me Asleep” had a dissonance that might not have set well with everyone but showed the skill of this amazing group. Charming? Maybe, but sleep inducing? No.
In the hour and a half that followed, I heard a blend of complicated and breezier pieces, the latter provided by special guest, a group of talented middle and high school girls called Sounds of Distinction (more on them in a moment).
Most compelling to me was Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, the work Borton chose to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For the lyrics, Britten used a long, rambling poem by Christopher Smart with the Latin title Jubilate Agno. Smart, at the time, was spending his most creative years in a “lunatic asylum,” where he suffered from bipolar disorder — maybe even schizophrenia. Here’s why I think so: In one line from the poem, Borton explained, Smart acknowledges his own affliction, saying, “For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour. For they said, He is besides (sic) himself.”
Thankfully, the text of the poem was included in the program. This made following the thread of the fairly long piece a bit easier to follow as it was tackled by the choir and soloists Christina Salasny (soprano), Elizabeth Duhr-Ramirez (alto), Jason Auman (tenor) and Jeff Fellowes (baritone). I have rarely heard a more difficult piece. But for all that, it moved a lot of people in the church, myself included.
Guest accompanist on this remarkable work was Peter Browne, at home at Trinity where he is organist and choir director. He often appears as a guest with the Madrigal Choir.
The group’s other special guests, the members of Sounds of Distinction, lit up the afternoon with two happy pieces, “Las Amarillas,” sung in Spanish, and “Tango to Evora,” an explosion of la la las! The 21 young women followed those two joyful songs with the melancholy and beautiful “Do Not Stand by My Grave and Weep,” featuring flutist Susan Zanovitch, and the traditional and uplifting spiritual, “Ain’t No Grave.”
Sounds of Distinction, founded by Victoria Vibbert and Kacie Weaver, is part of Southern Tier Vocal Arts, which represents local school districts and “fosters friendship and music collaboration.” The singers come from seven school districts and are part of a superset created for “more advanced female voices in grades 7 through 12.”
The final segment of the Yin and Yang concert was entitled “Night and Day,” and what better way to illustrate that than with Cole Porter’s own song by the same name? Usually heard performed in an old recording, or on a YouTube video, by the jazzy Ella Fitzgerald, the choir’s measured, church-y version of “there’s a yearning burning inside of me”came with an implied wink and a nod to the sheer romance of it all and was, therefore, all the more fun. I loved it!
Although the day was sunny and mild, it didn’t keep people from packing the church close to capacity, or entice them to depart before they’d given the performers a standing ovation. I’m so glad that the Madrigal Choir is a fixture, several times a year here, and a member organization of the Broome County Arts Council.