Choral concert spans two continents

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Penny Winter, left center, and Susie Bowman sing Vivaldi at the West Tisbury church. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Music lovers filled the pews at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury Sunday afternoon, anticipating the Choral Concert of Two Continents to be sung by the choir with director and organist David Rhoderick. The ambitious two-part program featured a resplendent performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria and an equally captivating rendition of Frostiana, Randall Thompson’s setting of Robert Frost’s poetry.

The multi-faceted concert brought listeners on a journey from Vivaldi’s 18th century to Thompson’s and Frost’s 1900s, and through countless musical moods and emotions — a perfect Sunday adventure.

After a welcome from the Rev. Cathlin Baker, the choir processed to the organ loft. Any doubts about how the organ could replace the powerful orchestral accompaniment frequently heard were quickly laid to rest. From the first notes of the exultant fanfare-like introduction and throughout the work, Mr. Rhoderick’s keyboard virtuosity provided strong support to the vocal parts.

The choir burst forth with a joyful noise in the fast-paced, high-energy “Gloria in excelsis deo,” its powerful, full-bodied sound a promise of richness to come.

In a quick change of pace, the choir shifted effortlessly to serenity in the soothing “Et in terra pax.” Lower voices set solid groundwork; sopranos joined in, and soared like sunshine through clouds.

Susie Bowman and Penny Winter blended well-matched voices adeptly in the dance-like “Laudamus te,” keeping it light and sure-footed through demanding runs and harmonies. Ms. Winter’s later solo again showed confident agility. Martha Hudson’s rich alto voice resonated in a thoughtful “Domino Deus, Agnus Dei,” and Molly Conole’s angelic soprano “Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,” was breathtaking.

With restrained power recalling the dynamic beginning, the choir built to a dramatic conclusion, the nobly elegant “Cum Sancto Spiritu.” Voices cascaded in fugal patterns, topped by a grand “Amen,” bringing the audience to its feet in appreciation.

Each of the Gloria’s 11 movements is different from the next in tempo, style, and mood — a delight to the audience, but a challenge for singers. To this choir’s great credit, the members moved gracefully from one to another, performing all with equal mastery. Balance among the parts was striking as the voices not so much drifted as exploded from the high loft, suffusing the space.

The post-intermission Frostiana swept the audience from the opulent formality of post-Renaissance Venice to the sweet nostalgia of New Hampshire country life. The town of Amherst, Mass., commissioned Thompson to compose the piece for its bicentennial in 1959. He and Frost already shared friendship and mutual respect. The composer himself chose the seven poems.

Each piece opened with a choir member reading the text. Even without this preparation, the choir’s excellent enunciation was so precise that the words would have been clear and understandable.

As with the Vivaldi, the short pieces are very different from one another. Again, choir members deftly navigated the changes.

“The Road Not Taken,” the familiar reflection on choices, was delivered with controlled quiet contemplation. “The Pasture,” scored for bass and tenor voices in waltz time, evoked images of New England farm chores.

An especially charming moment was Ann Fielder’s reading of “A Girl’s Garden” with engaging storytelling flair, a fond reminder of her years as West Tisbury’s children’s librarian. The song had a jaunty, Mother Goose lilt, calling up backyard scenes, the child’s excitement.

“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” became a lullaby for basses and tenors, soft and dreamy. With careful dynamics, the singers matched the poetry, conveying the stillness of snowy country dusk with “miles to go.”

The inspirational “Choose Something Like a Star” created a shimmering setting as soprano voices rose to a sustained high note, hovering like a shining star above the lower melody.

These deceptively simple pieces are more complex than they seem. But the choir performed them with such ease, they could have been folk songs around a campfire. Mr. Rhoderick’s dexterity at the piano was evident as he negotiated shifting rhythms, tempos, and dynamics, even mimicked birdsong. Although in the background, the piano was an integral part of the superb performance.

Later, Mr. Rhoderick said that the choir had been familiar with both pieces, but needed extra rehearsal time to polish them, while addressing issues from personnel changes to complicated scores.

“We rose to the occasion and took on the challenges,” he said happily. “I think everyone was extremely pleased with the way it went.”