mon 23/09/2019

Brigham Young University Singers, St John's Smith Square | reviews, news & interviews

Brigham Young University Singers, St John's Smith Square

Brigham Young University Singers, St John's Smith Square

American choral classics brought to life by an all-American ensemble

Leonard Bernstein: the father of contemporary American choral language

Brigham Young University in Utah is the largest private university in America, and is probably best known for its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, AKA the Mormons. What’s less commonly known is that the university also has a choir (four different choirs, in fact) that is among the finest collegiate ensembles in the US. Rounding off their three-week tour of England and Wales, the mixed-voice BYU Singers last night offered the audience of St John Smith Square a lively guided tour through the history of American choral music, with just a little bit of God thrown in.

I struggle to imagine a British ensemble of the calibre of the BYU Singers featuring programme biographies of its individual singers that include such information as to their courage, positivity of attitude, infectious smile, or qualities as a husband, or for that matter introducing pieces by recalling personal experiences of faith or emotion. But once it becomes clear that this isn’t your average choral setup, then it becomes a lot easier to accept this group on their own terms – as far in standard from your average university chamber choir as they are in attitude.

There’s a warmth and a joy here that starts with the smiles that embrace you from the stage and only grows through the singing. Immaculately turned-out, the ensemble’s presentation puts many of the UK’s professional ensembles to shame, as does their evident and unabashed delight in what they do.

Starting with Bernstein (in so many ways the father of the contemporary American choral style as we know it), the programme took us from the classic (Barber, William Billings) to the inevitable (Whitacre, Lauridsen) via such unfamiliar figures as George Whitefield Chadwick and Adolphus Hailstork, even taking a small detour into musical theatre and a Sondheim number.

The real strength of the BYU Singers under their director Dr Ronald Staheli (pictured below) is their blend. Soft-grained basses set the curve for a mesh of sound that has surely evolved to suit the characteristic warmth and density of so much American choral music. There’s no doubt they do this excellently well, as Whitacre’s Water Night and Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night proved, but it would have been lovely to see some of their more rhythmic, contrapuntal skills on show during the main body of the programme rather than banished to the encores.

As it was, some excellent singing risked being lost in monotony as mezzo-forte consonance blended into mezzo-forte consonance, with even Sondheim – master of the acid dissonance – represented by the ghastly sentimentality of Children will Listen. Cloying sweetness aside however there was much to enjoy. The low basses anchored the Whitacre with resonant delicacy, while sopranos set the tone for the sensitively-phrased unisons of Mack Wilberg’s My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, but it was the mezzos who came close to stealing the show with a strikingly mature, rounded sound so much in the contrast to the straight (too often gripped tone) of many English groups.

Dynamics made a late (but striking) appearance for the climaxes of Hailstork’s spiritual-based Crucifixion, and though I would have liked more pace from both Bernstein’s Sanctus and Carlyle Sharpe’s Laudate Nomen there was no faulting the purity of intonation and balance of double-choir anthem O vis aeternitatis (Frank Ferko) with its waves of imitation and organum-like chanting.

Britain may still offer some of the finest professional choirs in the world, but for university chamber choirs the US outdoes us significantly – something it’s easy to forget when lauding the achievements of the chapel choirs of Trinity Cambridge or King’s College London. Watching the well-drilled, fervent singing of the BYU Singers it makes it rather hard to return to the copy-bound, last-minute excellence of some of our equivalents here. I might not be a convert to their faith, but as far as music goes the choir of Brigham Young have a new believer.

Comments

As a member of BYU Singers, I want to thank Alexandra Coghlan. You are kind with your praise and honest with your suggestions. It's touching to hear that you picked up on our hope to bring something more than just music. "There’s a warmth and a joy here that starts with the smiles that embrace you from the stage and only grows through the singing." That's why I sing. Joy. It doesn't matter who you are or what you believe or don't believe, a smile does... something. Thank you again. I don't know who you are, but I wish you the best.

We Mormons enjoy your praise but even better, we value your critique--well articulated and applicable to the entire Utah choral aesthetic. Thank you for your thoughtful and generous comments.

Amen to what Jonnie said. I think it was an astute observation on the part of the reviewer that there is something different about BYU Singers that you don't find elsewhere; that's one of the things that really surprised me when I first started singing in the choir. Fair criticisms as well; there's always work to do and places to improve.

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