There's nothing average about your average symphonic concert — the excitement as the musicians warm up onstage, the anticipation as the principal oboist tunes the other players, the astonishing moment when the conductor steps out and the orchestra unleashes wave after powerful wave of sound.
When Lancaster Chorale performs its Symphony of Voices concerts this weekend, you’ll experience all of the rich sounds, dazzling textures and powerful emotions of an orchestra concert sung by a full choir of professional singers.
Lancaster Chorale performs Symphony of Voices: Choral Landscapes and Transcriptions, 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18 at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lancaster.
The program features works by Edward Elgar, Samuel Barber, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Robert Schumann, Lancaster Chorale Artistic Director Stephen Caracciolo and others.
The repertoire for Symphony of Voices was selected in no small part to showcase the all-professional Lancaster Chorale’s extensive vocal range and depth of sound.
"With Lancaster Chorale, I feel very lucky that I actually have somewhere between 28 and 32 voices — a little unusual for a professional choir,' Caracciolo said. "We raise funds to be able to fund that many seats. And when you have that many voices, it does seem that you’d like to make sure that you have textures where you can cover (the full range of all of the voices)."
Transcribing the Orchestra
With a symphonic breadth of sound in his ear, Caracciolo says he felt a particular "gravitational pull" toward the lush textures of Elgar’s Lux Aeterna, John Cameron’s setting of the beautiful “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations to the Lux aeterna text from the Requiem Mass liturgy.
"I took that as the lead and thought, well, what else can we do that puts those two things together — a wider texture of vocal sound and then choral transcriptions?" Caracciolo said.
Barber’s Agnus Dei — his own choral transcription of his famed Adagio for Strings, set to the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) liturgical text — similarly transplants the long-breathed lines and warm string-orchestra sound into the choral realm, transforming the piece into a meaningful meditative tapestry of words and music.
And in longing to create a smooth orchestral string texture, Caracciolo’s ear led him to experiment with a particular vocal technique in his choral transcription of I Vow to Thee My Country, the beautiful hymn-like tune from the middle of the "Jupiter" movement of Holst’s orchestral masterwork The Planets. Over the course of the piece, some of the chorus’ voices sing the actual song text, while others sing the tune simply on the vowel sound "Ah."
"The reason why I’ve done that is to kind of find that very smoothness of strings with vocalise to create even more of a legato (smoothness) in the singing of this piece," Caracciolo said.
Beyond choral transcriptions of orchestral works, the centerpiece of Lancaster Chorale's Symphony of Voices program is Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Choir, Op. 141, a true exploration of the thicker textures possible with many voices.
"When you have double choir music, the composer avails himself of this wider texture, sonorous texture, of singing," Caracciolo said. "And then you can have more of a conversation between Choir One and Choir Two, which then leads the composer to thinking, well, how can I layer sounds on top of each other — almost in a symphonic way?"
Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Choir lead the listener through four movements — not unlike a four-movement symphony — that build into what Caracciolo describes as "powerful, turbulent walls of sound." Vocal lines are developed in very much the same way the great symphonist Beethoven develops instrumental lines in his symphonies.
The Choral Night Song and New American Voices
The rich textures of Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Choir found a home in later choral works — especially those with texts about nighttime — some of which Lancaster Chorale will perform in a set called Voices at Evening.
"There is this tradition of kind of thick, warm, lovely textures when it comes to speaking about the evening," Caracciolo said. "Lancaster Chorale is known for its seamless, homogeneous sound, and this Voices at Evening set will absolutely capitalize on that sound that we put forward on a regular basis."
Lancaster Chorale will present works in this vein by Zoltan Kodály, Hugo Alfvén, Paweł Łukaszewski and Caracciolo, whose setting of the traditional American song The Wayfaring Stranger will also be featured in a set of American choral works.
"Part of the mission of Lancaster Chorale," Caracciolo says, "is to make sure that American music is heard, new music is heard."
This program includes new music by Juilliard School undergraduate composition student Alistair Coleman, who also serves as Composer-in-Residence of the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale. Lancaster Chorale will give the Ohio premiere of Coleman's A Hymn for Peace.
"I thought, why doesn’t Lancaster Chorale encourage this young composer with his art by performing some of his music and giving him that platform early on to help him with his career — I should say, very much the way my predecessor for Lancaster Chorale, Bob Trocchia, did for me," Caracciolo said. "We met when I was in college, and he began performing some of my music. I very much appreciated that, and I kind of want to pay it forward."
Stephen Caracciolo conducts the Lancaster Chorale in Symphony of Voices: Choral Landscapes and Transcriptions at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17 in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Columbus), and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18 in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (Lancaster).