Philharmonic choral ensembles bring the warmth of song on a chilly night

Growing up in Columbus, I vividly remember taking a tour as a first grader of the sanctuary of First Christian Church. We walked in through a rather dim and narrow hallway that led us to the sanctuary.

I remember being overwhelmed by the size of the room which to a small boy seemed as wide as a river and with a ceiling that seemed to reach to the sky. The room was eerily silent as we were all mesmerized by the grandeur of the room we were in.

Suddenly someone played a chord on the organ that at first scared us, but then surrounded us with a sound that filled the entire space and comforted us with its richness and beauty. Such was the experience that the audience enjoyed at the “Music from the Heart, Music for the Soul” concert presented March 30 by The Philharmonic Chorus and the Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir.

The approximately 70-voice Philharmonic Chorus filled the front steps of the chancel area of the sanctuary as easily as they filled the space with a rich and full choral tone in their first selection “How Can I Keep from Singing?” arranged by choral legend, Alice Parker, with soprano soloist, Nicola Santoro.

The wonderful acoustics of the room helped the chorus achieve many beautiful dynamic contrasts, but at the same time caused some of the words to be lost. This did not deter the piece from being an effective opening to the concert and theme for the evening.

Choral works by Johannes Brahms were then highlighted with “Two Motets, Op. 29” and “Let Nothing Ever Grieve You, op. 30.” Again, diction was an issue as it was throughout the evening and perhaps the audience might have benefited from the words of the pieces printed in the program as is done in many choral concerts. However, the beauty of Brahms’ compositional style was vividly portrayed and articulately conducted by maestro David Bowden.

The second act opened with John Ness Beck’s “Offertory”, Dan Forrest’s “Entreat Me Not to Leave You” and Alexander Gretchaninoff’s “Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon).” In these pieces, the chorus sang well with better diction though at times in the softer sections more intensity could have been used in their consonant production.

Bowden was particularly effective and expressive in his conducting, creating beautiful moments of crescendo and elegant phrasing and at one point holding the audience from applauding too early by the lift in his conducting gestures. Balance with the instrumentalists was excellent, though the overall effect of the softer moments in these pieces was occasionally disrupted by audience noise which is again amplified by the acoustics of this space.

At this point, Bowden turned the conducting duties over to assistant choral conductor Grant Farmer. Though not as dramatic a conductor as Bowden, Farmer adeptly led the chorus in “O Magnum Mysterium” by Marten Lauridsen, “Even When He is Silent” by Kim Andre Arnesen, with a text by a person hiding from the Germans discovered in a basement in Germany during World War II, and the spiritual “Glory, Glory to the New-Born King” arranged by Moses Hogan.

This last piece featured tenor Joseph McBrayer, who sang with great style and dynamic sensitivity. The chorus was also more energized in this number, though still somewhat restrained for the style. The audience rewarded this energy with its own energetic applause response.

As the Philharmonic Chorus moved back to risers at the top of the steps in the front of the chancel, the Columbus Indiana Children’s Concert Choir took their place and presented an intriguing piece from Hawaii “E Nana Kakou I Na Manu” by Herb Mahelona. With Jessica Harris providing authentic bird songs on her piccolo, the children sang with a clear, full tone and enhanced their presentation with nature sounds that created a definite tropical atmosphere.

Under the lyric conducting style of Ruth Dwyer, the children phrased the melody of “When I Close My Eyes” by Papoulis/Nunez particularly well enhanced by the accompaniment of cellist, SeungAh Hong and pianist, Jill Friedersdorf. The two choruses then joined forces in a rousing finale “Hope for Resolution: A Song for Mandela and de Klerk” arranged by Caldwell & Ivory.

Complete with staging and choreography, this rousing work sung both in English and Zulu, embodied the spirit and theme of the evening that no circumstances, however dire or dismal, can keep the human spirit from expressing hope in song.

The energy from these two excellent choral ensembles joined together in song lifted the audience on a cold and blustery night to an instant standing ovation and a positive affirmation of the power of music and song.

J. Kevin Butler is a graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a high school choral director for more than 20 years. He is currently director of music for the First United Methodist Church of Columbus.