John von Rhein

Rutter, St. Charles Singers a fine match in British choral works

John Rutter became a fan of the St. Charles Singers after accepting founding artistic director Jeffrey Hunt's invitation to conduct the choir in the early 1990s.

Since then Rutter, a superb choral conductor who's also one of the world's most prolific and widely performed choral composers, has been invited back several times – most recently over the weekend when he capped the singers' 26th season with a program of British choral works. His popularity insured that the churches in Wheaton and Chicago where the chorus performed were packed.

Their performance on Sunday evening at Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church was a happy occasion for devotees of the English choral tradition. Hunt has made the St. Charles Singers a splendidly disciplined, beautifully responsive group, and Rutter took full advantage of what the 32-voice mixed chorus had to offer.

Rutter devoted the bulk of his program to choral and instrumental arrangements of folk songs, many of them familiar from the recordings he has made with his famed Cambridge Singers. He surrounded these with a cappella and accompanied works by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Charles Villiers Stanford, Robert Pearsall and himself.
Britten's "Five Flower Songs" provided a stiff test of the singers' ability to negotiate tricky pitch relations and rapid rhythmic interplay, a test they passed very well indeed.

From there he led the audience on a stroll through the mists and heathers of the English countryside. Robert Pearsall's "Lay a Garland" and Charles Villiers Stanford's "The Blue Bird" showed the chorus' ability to sustain a full, well-tuned sound at soft dynamic levels.

Vaughan Williams' "Three Shakespeare Songs," brief but finely crafted settings of verses from "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," depicted the swelling of the sea and fairies' frolic with sensitive blending of voices and secure intonation and balance.

So it was in Williams' sublime "Serenade to Music," presented in a version for four vocal soloists, chorus, strings and harp. The ethereal effect of vocal chamber music was particularly enhanced by the solos of concertmaster Thomas Yang, harpist Stephen Hartman and the sweetly soaring soprano of Michelle Areyzaga. The church acoustics were not so resonant as to blur words or their expressive sense.

From the purely instrumental folk-song settings of Rutter's "Suite for Strings," crisply played by the strings of the Metropolis Chamber Orchestra, he turned to his choral arrangements of such folk songs as "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "I Know Where I'm Going" and "Down By the Sally Gardens." All bespoke singing of pure timbre, honest sentiment and a sensitive matching of sound-color to what the words mean.

Two Rutter choral works – his ever-popular "What Sweeter Music" and "The Lord Bless and Keep You" – sent the crowd home feeling good about the state of our battered old world. Chamber chorus singing doesn't get much better than this.

–Review by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, May 2010

Tim Sawyier

Superlative Singing in the West Loop

Singing in the West Loop? Nope, not Lyric this time! This afternoon the St. Charles Singers put on a splendid concert at Old St. Pat’s. I’m not much of a crier or much of a churchgoer, but this concert made me one of each. The moving program was a sampling of works from Mozart’s early years.

The Metropolis Chamber Orchestra accompanied the Singers. They opened the concert with Mozart’s very first symphony, which he wrote when he was nine. The opening theme of the first movement is a glorified triad; the second theme literally a study in 4th species counterpoint (which yeah, was probably proofread by Wolfgang’s obnoxious father). However, you can hear adumbrations of the works that would solidify Mozart's reputation as a master of the seemingly simple. The MCO’s performance was “obviously-not-sight-read,” for lack of a better phrase. They brought an attention to phrasing and musical direction that ensembles can sometimes omit when playing “easy” pieces.

The program continued with three enchanting choral works, any of which would have fit nicely into the mass that followed the performance. The Singers brought to these pieces a blend and poise I’ve not heard from a choral ensemble since hearing the King’s College Choir when I was, umm, 13. I’m at a loss to describe what exactly it is about this music that made me well up with tears. The candor and innocence of a young Mozart? The church’s singular acoustics? Being slap-happy from cheering for Roger Federer until 7 a.m. that morning? It’s hard to describe, but maybe getting verklempt at Mozart choral music just isn’t something easy to describe. Check out the St. Charles Singers’ future “Mozart Journey” concerts to find out for yourselves!

Conductor Jeff Hunt played a key role in the group’s triumph. In my experience conductors with a choral/vocal background just “get” something about orchestras that others don’t—a sense of line, how to support a line, and most importantly a sense of proportion and balance that I can only imagine comes with years of listening to and working with choirs. Hunt brought all this and more to the stage, creating sweep and architecture in all the (actually really short) selections.

The second half of the concert lived up to the first. The MCO offered Mozart’s 10th Symphony with the same exuberance as it did the program opener. Again music that appears to be little more than enhanced scales came alive. The K. 49 Missa Brevis puncuated the memorable affair, with a quartet of refined soloists highlighting the thoughtful playing of the orchestra and Singers. Bravo!

–Review by Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Music, February 2010

Tony Haywood

"...The disc rounds off its rarity value in style with arrangements of Copland’s popular Old American Songs, originally for voice and piano but here transcribed to include chorus and orchestra by Irving Fine, R. Wilding-White and Glenn Koponen. It works very well, with the St Charles Singers relishing the allusions to folk ballads, minstrel tunes, hymns and children’s tunes. The lyrics – included in the booklet - may be pure cornball in places (‘My pig says ‘griffey, griffey…’) but they’re great fun and the chorus approach them in this spirit.

The recorded sound is warm and generous, coping with the thicker textures well, and good liner-notes complete a very desirable Copland selection."

—Review by Tony Haywood, MusicWeb International, August 2008

Dan Morgan

Thankfully this isn’t the umpteenth recording of Appalachian Spring but a collection of lesser-known Copland. As always this music is quintessentially American, the suite from his opera The Tender Land, the bluesy piano concerto and the Old American Songs, the latter in choral arrangements. Appropriately enough the orchestra is the Illinois-based Elgin Symphony, which has embarked on an ambitious project called In Search of Our American Voice. Helping them in this endeavour are the St. Charles Singers, a multi-talented chamber choir founded in 1984.

This is exhilarating stuff and quite possibly the most enjoyable item on the disc – go on, give it another whirl – so the choral arrangements of the Old American Songs needs to be pretty special to top that. Most listeners probably know these pieces in their original scoring for voice and piano; if that’s the version you want do try Willard White on Chandos CHAN 8960.

Alas, first impressions of the choral arrangements aren’t very encouraging, baritone Nathaniel Stampley’s rather wide vibrato spoiling ‘The Boatmen’s Dance’. The St. Charles singers are another matter entirely; they are clear and nimble and, to be fair, Stampley does improve in ‘The Dodger’. Those who have heard Willard White in this repertoire will know just how much character and personality he brings to bear in these songs. Well worth seeking out.

The Elgin Symphony is never less than excellent and the chorus sing eloquently in the ballad ‘Long Time Ago’. Diction could be clearer but with such heartfelt singing it seems churlish to complain. And then there’s ‘Simple Gifts’, the Shaker hymn we know from Appalachian Spring, essayed here with a wonderful sense of innocence and optimism. They even manage the farmyard onomatopoeia of ’I Bought Me a Cat’ which, if you don’t mind this kind of silliness, will probably put a smile on your face.

Really it’s the chorus that makes these arrangements stand out; their bright, focused sound is invariably pleasing, even if the music doesn’t always sound like Copland. They are also suitably impassioned – febrile, even – in the Revivalist hymn ‘Zion’s Walls’. Then Stampley and tenor Jeffrey Hunt join them for a spirited rendition of ’The Golden Willow Tree’. Both soloists acquit themselves well here and for once the quirky orchestration actually sounds like authentic Copland.

Of the two remaining songs the hymn tune ‘At The River’ could have been penned by Charles Ives, such is its mix of devotional text and strange harmonies. Hanson and his band bring this music to a stirring close before launching into the utterly delightful ‘Ching-a-ring Chaw’. If you haven’t smiled so far then this will surely do the trick, the singing and playing pin-sharp and full of fun. An upbeat finale to an enchanting disc.

Minor caveats about the baritone aside this is another collection of American classics that deserves the highest praise. With exemplary playing, singing and an acoustic to match this is plainly indispensable. And the song texts are included as well, which is a welcome bonus. Buy it and enjoy.

—Review by Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International, July 2008

David Denton

Newcomers to the world stage, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra from Illinois have Aaron Copland deep in their lifeblood. Conducted by Robert Hanson, the engaging Suite from the opera, The Tender Land, is presented full of folksy Americana with classy playing in the many solos. Bejamin Pasternack is the brilliant soloist in the quirky Piano Concerto, and the disc is completed by the excellent St. Charles Singers in a choral adaptation of Copland's two likeable sets of Old American Songs. Recorded sound is outstanding.

—Review by David Denton, Yorkshire Post, June 20, 2008

Christian Carey

One can still get their “vocal fix” with this CD; the St. Charles Singers perform both sets of Old American Songs. The group gives a movingly tender (no pun intended) rendition of “Long Time Ago.” They are also able to negotiate the deceptively tricky syncopations between voices and accompaniment in “Simple Gifts,” clearly enunciating this Shaker anthem (Copland famously also employed this tune in Appalachian Spring). Other highlights are their fleet, good-humored performances of “Ching-a-ring Chaw” and “I bought me a Cat.” Baritone Nathaniel Stampley is an appealingly waggish soloist on “The Boatmen’s Dance” and “The Dodger.” The choral/orchestral version of “At the River,” arranged by R. Wilding-White, sounds positively glorious.

—Review by Christian Carey, Westminster Choir College of Rider University