Classical Music Review: ‘An American Sampler’

By Caldwell Titcomb

The Spectrum Singers, founded in 1980 and still led by John W. Ehrlich, presented a concert on March 29 entitled “An American Sampler.” Taking place in Emmanuel Church, the program was devoted to six composers of distinction, with particular emphasis on Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Irving Fine (1914-1962).

Composer Aaron Copland
American composer Aaron Copland

Kicking off was “Smart Set,” commissioned in 2005 from Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006), whose entire career was spent in Boston. This work consists of four brief numbers set to God-centered texts by Cristopher Smart (1722-1771), who sank into insanity and debt. The components are “For Saturday,” “Echo,” with an effective sudden pianissimo on ‘in prayer,’ “No Music,” and a hymnic “The Conclusion of the Matter.”

There followed the three-minute “To Be Sung on the Water” (1968) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), somewhat pictorially set to a dozen lines by Maine-born Louise Bogan. The last part was sung with appropriate softness.

From Copland’s “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” (1951) we heard four, sung by one of the chorus’s sopranos, Katherine Vogele, with Karen Harvey at the piano. The songs chosen were “Nature, the gentlest mother,” “Why do they Shut me out of Heaven?,” “The world feels Dusty,” and “Heart, we will forget him.” Vogele did a generally good job, though there were a couple of harsh high notes.

Copland’s first set of “Old American Songs” were composed for solo voice and piano. Knowing that Irving Fine was a superb pianist who also spent World War II as assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, Copland urged that Fine arrange them for chorus (1951-52). Of the five songs the Spectrum Singers performed two: “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker tune also prominently used in Copland’s well-known “Appalachian Spring,” and “Long Time Ago” (so lovely in Fine’s hands).

Copland’s “In the Beginning” was a commission from the Harvard Music Department’s three-day conference on music criticism in the spring of 1947, accompanied by three concerts of premieres. “In the Beginning” had its first performance on May 2, along with Hindemith’s marvelous “Apparebit Repentina Dies” for chorus and brass ensemble. I was present at this great occasion, which took place not in Sanders Theatre but in Memorial Church. Harvard singers were conducted by the late Robert Shaw (one of John Ehrlich’s teachers), widely considered the country’s foremost choral conductor at the time.

For his only extended choral work Copland chose to set, for mezzo-soprano and four-part a cappella chorus, the first 38 verses of the Book of Genesis (in the King James version), which describes God’s creation of the world day by day. As each day finishes, there is a recurring refrain on different pitches. The guest soloist this time was Krista River, winner of the 2004 Concert Artists Guild Competition. She sang splendidly, standing in the pulpit, and Copland concludes the climactic “man became a living soul” (which he repeats) with a blaze of sound that the chorus provided with maximum force.

Ernst Bacon
Four Photos of Ernst Bacon

After intermission came a sort of interlude in the form of three movements of the four that constitute Fine’s “Music for Piano” (1947), his only substantial work for his own instrument. Karen Harvey returned to the keyboard and provided a fleet performance of this elegant neo-classical music, though the first movement was a bit too fast. But why not play the entire work, including the theme-and-variations third movement?

The full chorus then turned to Fine’s wonderful “The Choral New Yorker” (1947), premiered in Sanders Theatre by Harvard-Radcliffe singers under G. Wallace Woodworth (another of Ehrlich’s teachers), with the composer at the piano. “Hen Party,” “Caroline Million,” “Pianola d’Amore,” and “Design for October” have poems by, respectively, Peggy Bacon, Isabel MacMeekin, Fine’s friend David McCord, and Jake Falstaff (pseudonym of Herman Fetzer). The writing for both piano and voices is masterly; and the last number, lamenting the end of summer, came across as the gorgeous music it is.

Kurt Weill
Composer Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill (1900-1950) qualifies as an American since, although German-born, he emigrated to the United States in 1935 and became a naturalized citizen in 1943. His short “Kiddush,” a Jewish blessing, was written for the Park Avenue Synagogue in 1946. Its style is somewhat bluesy with its flatted-seventh scale degrees. The scheduled soloist was ill, so Krista River on short notice came back to join admirably with the chorus, singing in Hebrew.

The evening concluded with “Three American Songs” (1954) by Ernst Bacon (1898-1990). These pieces were new to me, and proved to be highly engaging. The swaggering “John Hardy” dealt with the hanging of a Western outlaw. Following “The Colorado Trail” came “Shouting Pilgrim,” a marching-to-battle number with piano four-hands (Harvey joined by James Barkovic) that allowed the 34 Spectrum Singers to indulge in full cry.

Prior to the concert, choral conductor James Olesen gave a half-hour talk about “In the Beginning” and “The Choral New Yorker,” the latter of which he had led with the Orpheus Singers just a week before, and which will be done again by another group at M.I.T. on April 27. This superb music cannot be heard too often.


  1. Ruby Meyer on April 4, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    For the most part, the singers did very well technically, but the dynamic range seemed to me to be limited to quite soft or very loud. One wished mightily for subtleties of presentation. Despite all that wonderful music, it didn’t live and breathe. (The audience as a whole clapped only politely, I noticed.) I suspect that the director, soulful as he may feel himself to be, is unable to translate the emotional centers of the music for his singers, as if the public performance of the pieces takes precedence over the search for the musical heart.

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