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Concert Review: UC Davis Early Music Ensemble
November 18, 2015 (The Sacramento Choral Calendar)

I heard a very nice concert by the UC Davis Early Music Ensemble last year.  “Very nice,” though, doesn’t begin to express what I heard this past Wednesday night at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis.  Under the leadership of its new director, Matilda Hofman, the Early Music Ensemble has been transformed into something that demands notice.

From the first few seconds of “Ave Verum Corpus,” by William Byrd (1543-1623), I was impressed with the beautifully balanced, rich sound produced by this 16-member chorus.  As the piece proceeded, I was conscious of the fluidity of their singing and excellent dynamic control.  Clearly, this ensemble has drawn some fine singers.

The Early Music Ensemble is a course at UC Davis, and the catalog describes it this way:  “The Early Music Ensemble performs a wide range of vocal music, with a focus on the Renaissance, early Baroque, and modern repertoire. A chamber choir that seeks excellence and versatility, EME collaborates with other ensembles and soloists from time to time and performs one concert per quarter.”  To participate (and apparently non-matriculated students are accepted), one must pass an audition, and the standards must be high.  On Wednesday night I was instantly impressed by the bass section.  Part of what I heard was assistant conductor, Nathan Halbur, who displayed a find voice in later solo passages.  But then I noticed Daniel Yoder, who I heard most recently as the bass soloist in the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” last March.  His presence on this night was a credit both to him and to the EME.

After the first selection, Hofman spoke to us a bit about the concept of the concert, “Lamentations and Temptations:  English Sacred and Profane.”  Indeed, there was a mix of sacred and secular texts, though I wouldn’t quite call the latter “profane.”  She described the program as ambitious and challenging, and it was every bit of that.

(Click here to open the program and notes in a new window.)

The second selection, “Verses of Love,” was by 20th-century composer Elisabeth Lutyens.  The program notes describe this piece as “hauntingly beautiful” with “delicate harmonies and highly imaginative use of choral sounds,” and that was certainly true.  I would describe at least one of those “imaginative uses” as a sort of a swooning over a range of pitches, first by the women, then by the men.  I want to call it a vocal glissando, but I’m not sure that gives the right impression.  At the very least it was a demonstration of the versatility of the chorus, as they performed music that was incredibly difficult to sing.  But in addition to being a tribute to the talents of the singers, this piece demonstrated the adventuresomeness of the director.  In my notes, I wrote the single word “fascinating.”  Then there was the text.  The poem was by Ben Jonson, and reading through the early 17th-century spellings and images, I suspect that this love poem goes beyond being merely secular to being a bit bawdy.  I detected no blushes in the performers, though.

John Taverner’s (1490-1545) “Western Wind Mass” took us back to the music of the Renaissance and to a sacred text, though as the program notes point out, it was based on secular song.  The piece was directed from within the chorus by assistant conductor, Nathan Halbur.  As I listened, I was impressed with ethereal, pure sound of the soprano and tenor soloists (Beth Nitzan and Daniel Phillips) and the accuracy of the contrapuntal singing which created a finely woven musical fabric.

Despite what the program says, Thomas Tallis’ (1505-85) “Purge Me, O Lord” was next, followed by Benjamin Britten’s (1913-76) “Hymn to the Virgin.”  With this latter piece, Hofman returned to direct, with the two parts of a double chorus positioned on opposite sides of the church.  Britten’s music was very different, of course, from the style of the early composers, but it was still sublime.  During this piece I was conscious of the fact that Hofman’s crisp and easy-to-follow directing was from memory, as I believe was the case throughout the concert.

The entire first half of this concert had been performed a cappella.  For the second half, the artistry and refined technique of the singers was matched by 12 instrumentalists (in different combinations).  “Ye Sacred Muses” by William Byrd was accompanied by a 4-piece viol consort.  It was Byrd’s tribute to his mentor, Thomas Tallis, on the occasion of the latter’s death, and it was suitably mournful, begun with a delicate solo by mezzo soprano Laura McLellan.

What is it about us that especially appreciates a joke at a somber occasion or the comical character in a tragedy?  Whatever it is made the next piece, Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) “Cries of London” my favorite part of this concert — much as I appreciated all the fine serious music.  As you can see from the attached texts, it is a “montage of contemporary London street cries.”  It was begun a cappella by Nathan Halbur, who held pitch for an incredibly long time until joined by the accompaniment.  (He must be one of the few blessed with perfect pitch.)

As the piece proceeded, the humor of it all became apparent, especially when tenor Daniel Phillips delivered his “street cry” in a snarling, comic voice.  The solo lines were then passed around the chorus, with many altering their voices to create characters, while we in the audience smiled and chuckled.  Then it all ended in an unexpectedly pompous style.

The next song, “It Fell Upon a Summer’s Day” by Thomas Campion (1567-1620) was performed by soprano Beth Nitzan and lutenist, David Nutter.  The program notes point out that Campion’s songs are “playful, almost bawdy,” and this piece seemed to me to be closer to bawdy than playful.  Yet there was nothing in Nitzan’s sweet singing or demeanor to suggest the former.

The “Funeral Music of Queen Mary” by Henry Purcell (1659-95) made a suitably dramatic conclusion to this brilliantly conceived and executed concert.  It began with a surprise.  From the back of the church, there was the rhythmic striking of a bodhrán, soon accompanied by a brass quartet.  It created a distinctively funereal mood, and the playing proceeded for what felt like 2 or 3 minutes, eventually succeeded by the chorus, organ and bass viol.  As you can see from the text, this piece was divided into 3 sections, and each was preceded by a brass passage.  The second section included fine work by three soloists, and the third section began with a repeat of the rhythmic drumming on the bodhrán.  It was an intensely dramatic piece, and an effective way to end a concert that held more diversity (and fun) than I could have imagined at the start.

I think that all of us in the audience recognized that we had witnessed an exceptional performance, and we broke into enthusiastic applause as it concluded.  Hofman took her bows, acknowledged all the participants for their bows, and after a few moments proceeded down a side aisle to the back of the church.  Despite all the accomplishments noted in her bio, she seems like a modest person, and I think she may even have wished that we would fall silent.  But she misjudged our enthusiasm for the plan of the program, and for what she and the singers and players had done, and she was forced to return for the first “curtain call” that I can recall having witnessed at a choral concert.

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