Taylor Festival Choir’s Breathtaking “Oktoberfest”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

taylor-choirWHEN I SHOWED UP at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul on the afternoon of Sunday, October 5 to catch the Taylor Festival Choir’s (TFC) fall concert, I had no intention of writing a review. But the event turned out to be such a spectacular display of choral wizardry that I felt compelled to tell the public about it.

Like an increasing number of top American choirs, this ensemble—comprising accomplished vocal professionals from all over the country—assembles several times a year to rehearse, give concerts, go on tours, and make recordings. I’m honored to know several of the choir’s members, drawn as they are from among Director Robert Taylor’s former College of Charleston students; I’ve sung with several of them in local choirs over the past fifteen years. It is unquestionably the finest choir to call Charleston home, and our musical community deserves to know what they’re up to.

The afternoon’s “Oktoberfest” theme alluded to the all-German repertoire offered. The four opening selections—all short secular pieces by the seventeenth-century composer Heinrich Schein—were delivered by Seómra TFC: an eight-to-ten-voice sub-ensemble drawn from the main choir’s ranks. In keeping with Schein’s often jolly and exuberant style, our singers delivered these small choral gems with great skill, panache and bubbly good spirits… sheer choral fun!

The well-filled church then rang to the exalted strains of Singet dem Herrn: a classic German sacred text, offered in two different settings. The first and shorter version was by Schein’s contemporary, Heinrich Schütz: perhaps the most prominent of Germany’s early-Baroque masters. With its echoes of Renaissance-style polyphony, it was a marvel of choral craftsmanship, dignified sacred intensity and searing, yet sober beauty. The choir handled it with clearly etched vocal lines and superb sectional balances.

Then came—at least for me—the concert’s highlight: an impeccable rendition of the immortal Johann Sebastian Bach’s formidable motet, Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225. It turned out to be an unforgettable display of choral virtuosity. Allow me to digress long enough to tell you that—as a body of works—the six Bach motets are among the most absolutely fearsome of choral challenges, even for the very best ensembles. And this one is the most fiendishly difficult of the lot. Provided a truly superb chorus is at work, it’s also perhaps the most beguiling (and exciting) to the careful listener; in particular, it’ll take connoisseurs of antiphonal effect and contrapuntal complexity straight to choral heaven.

A work in eight parts for double chorus, the TFC split into equal halves to negotiate this miraculous work’s three sections. With the first movement’s basic thematic material constantly resounding from various vocal sections at a frisky tempo, other singers spiced it nonstop with ingeniously syncopated, rapid-fire melismas. Under Taylor’s firm guidance, the choir executed this cunningly crafted (and beastly tricky) marvel with nary a noticeable hitch. That gave way to a lovely chorale from one of the two sub-choirs, with the other providing independent musical (and textural) “commentary” that both complemented and contrasted with the basic chorale.

Dr. Robert Taylor

Dr. Robert Taylor

Then if was off to the races again, with the glorious final movement unfolding in a bracing tumble of brisk, eight-part counterpoint—before finishing up with a magnificent and protracted choral fugue. I loved how Taylor and company saw to it that the main theme was tossed around with amazing vocal precision, with added volume from each section in turn as it picked up the prevailing polyphonic voice. That was an essential interpretive quality for such “busy” music as this, as it prevented the complex interweaving lines from turning into a dense sonic quagmire; it also enabled attentive listeners to get a better grasp of the musical flow and logic.

Hearty kudos to the basso continuo instrumental duo that backed up the choir. Esteemed local organist and C of C teacher Julia Harlow presided beautifully at a wonderful little continuo organ, very much like those used in Bach’s day. Norbert Lewandowski, the Charleston Symphony’s vaunted principal cello, simply outdid himself. You may recall that Bach made something highly sophisticated of basso continuo support, compared to the fairly simple practices of earlier Baroque masters—and these accomplished players were far more than equal to their task.

After a brief break to reconfigure the performing space, the choir returned to complete their Oktoberfest program with late-romantic German icon Johannes Brahms’ delightful Liebeslieder Waltzes, with the usual duo-piano accompaniment. It’s a cycle of eighteen mostly brief part-songs in three-quarter time, setting poetry that celebrates romantic love—and an evergreen concert favorite that most dedicated choral singers encounter sooner or later (I’ve sung it twice).

While the music matches the poetry’s traversal of most moods and emotions that we associate with romantic love (even some of the unhappy ones), the songs are predominantly charming and upbeat, with moments of drama along the way. Our accomplished singers rendered them with rich and glowing choral sound, and Maestro Taylor saw to it that every musical sob, sigh and moment of love-struck ecstasy got its full emotional due. Duo-pianists Susan McAdoo and Robin Zemp—both notable local pianists and educators—offered sensitive and assured keyboard support. Having memorized the German texts long ago, I lip-synched my way happily through much of the music.

Postscript: For those of you who may not be aware, this terrific choir is as well known and highly regarded nationally as they are in their home base of Charleston. And they took Ireland by storm in a recent tour, leaving many new fans in their wake. Their parent organization is the Taylor Music Group, devoted jointly to music of the Gaelic tradition and classical choral music —click HERE to check them out. Once there, you can enjoy a wonderful video of their idyllic sojourn in Ireland.

Some of you may be aware of my work in recent years helping to run Delos Productions Inc.—“The Great American CD Label”… you can peruse our website HERE. And Delos has its eyes (and ears) on the TFC’s recent recorded performance of a unique program of sacred music by contemporary notables: the Irishman Michael McGlynn and Scotsman James MacMillan. Once several technical hurdles have been cleared, we may well be able to confirm Rob Taylor and his TFC as Delos artists, giving their CD the kind of worldwide marketing and distribution that they deserve.

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