Swimmingly good

New York Choral Society presents C.V. Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet’ at Carnegie Hall

4 minute read
Jarrett Ott, the concert's featured baritone, is a recent Curtis Institute of Music alum. (Photo by Dario Acosta Photography.)
Jarrett Ott, the concert's featured baritone, is a recent Curtis Institute of Music alum. (Photo by Dario Acosta Photography.)

There was water music of a different sort when David Hayes led the NYCHORAL in a rousing performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet. The concert, which also featured elegant baritone Jarrett Ott and the East Coast premiere of Californian composer Frank Ticheli’s powerful, evocative Symphony No. 3, brought a bit of Philadelphia spirit to Carnegie Hall.

In Philadelphia, Hayes is known for his long-term affiliations with the Curtis Institute of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra; he spent 23 years as music director of the Philadelphia Singers. He is also a presence in New York City’s music circles as a member of the Mannes School of Music’s conducting staff and musical director of the New York Choral Society (NYCHORAL).

The chorus is one of the mainstays of the city’s music scene, known for its adventuresome repertoire and high-profile gigs such as the Richard Tucker Gala and singing backup for Andrea Bocelli. (Full disclosure: I once sang with the chorus.) Now in his sixth season as its director, Hayes has reinvigorated NYCHORAL, which sings with a fresh, spacious, clear sound that makes it one of New York’s best.

The lure of the sea

The concert featured three works that captured not only the grandeur of the sea but its mystical pull on poets and composers. Mendelssohn was not alone in being captivated by the rough, rugged, remote beauty of the Hebrides; Sir Walter Scott described Fingal’s Cave as one of the most extraordinary places he had ever seen. Mendelssohn was so inspired by his visit that he sketched the outline of the Hebrides Overture on the spot.

If C.V. Stanford is known in America at all, it is as the composer of a few perennial-favorite church anthems. He casts a longer shadow than that in his native Britain. A prolific composer in many genres, he also had a distinguished teaching career at the Royal College of Music, where Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were among his students. Songs of the Fleet is a cycle of five songs for baritone, mixed chorus, and orchestra set to poems by Henry Newbolt glorifying England's naval tradition.

Conductor David Hayes has reinvigorated NYCHORAL. (Photo courtesy of NYCHORAL.)
Conductor David Hayes has reinvigorated NYCHORAL. (Photo courtesy of NYCHORAL.)

Frank Ticheli teaches composition at the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music. His works — mainly scored for chorus, orchestra, wind ensemble, and chamber groups — have been performed around the world and widely recorded. His Symphony No. 3, “The Shore,” dates from 2013 and is scored for chorus and orchestra, incorporating four poems by his USC colleague David St. John. Sea images feature prominently in both its poetry and music, which serve as the backdrop for the passage from childhood through young adulthood and crisis, and finally to redemption. This was the piece’s East Coast premiere.

Choral singing of uncommon depth and clarity

Baritone Jarrett Ott is a recent Curtis alum. His fine lyric baritone captured, with firm, brilliant tone and exuberance, the pride of a young tar at sea. He was particularly effective in the narrative passages and displayed touching sincerity in the solemn farewell to his mates who met watery graves. His sartorial elegance — white tie and tails — also hit the mark, fitting music that evokes the long-gone era when Britain ruled the waves. Ott also invoked the a cappella prayer that concludes Ticheli’s symphony.

For over 10 years, I sang with choirs in Switzerland and Germany and experienced the nuances native speakers bestow when singing in their own language. NYCHORAL displayed remarkable sophistication and refinement when singing in English. The audience must understand the lyrics, and the choir’s diction was exemplary throughout. One hardly needed the projected texts to understand every word they sang.

The choir’s sound displayed a depth perfectly suited for the profound emotions both composers expressed in these works. The women, particularly the sopranos, sang with stunning beauty and clarity of tone. At their best, their voices shimmered. In the light, rapid first movement of Ticheli's symphony, sopranos and altos combined to create a sound that sparkled with excitement and energy. The men were equally polished, singing with particular gusto in the Songs of the Fleet.

Hayes led a brisk, lyrical reading of the popular Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, complete with the requisite drama and excitement. The orchestra was far more engaged in the two subsequent works. The offstage horn solo that opens the final movement of Ticheli’s symphony was haunting, as was that of the solo viola that joined from onstage.

With his experience as a conductor, Hayes might have been quicker on the draw between songs and movements to prevent the cheering, whistling, and applause. But who can fault the audience’s reaction to such stirring, wonderful music?

What, When, Where

Where Even the Sea Sings. David Hayes, conductor; Jarrett Ott, baritone. Hebrides Overture, “Fingal’s Cave” by Felix Mendelssohn; Songs of the Fleet, Op.117, by Charles Villiers Stanford; Symphony No. 3, “The Shore,” by Frank Ticheli. New York Choral Society and Orchestra. February 11, 2018, at Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, New York, New York.

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