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Cantate Chamber Singers at St. Paul’s Parish

By Joan Reinthaler,

For sheer tonal sumptuousness, it would be hard to beat the sounds that poured from the 29-voice Cantate Chamber Singers during their almost-all-a-capella program at St. Paul’s Parish on Saturday. True, the church’s friendly acoustics helped give the sound its glow (just as it helped obscure a lot of the choral diction), but conductor Gisele Becker has her forces well trained and their light agility was as easy-sounding as their powerful blasts almost until the end, when fatigue set in.

The program featured music by students of Nadia Boulanger, famed teacher of many of the 20th-century’s best-known composers, including Aaron Copland (who once related how aghast his parents were that he was going to Paris to study with a woman), Gian Carlo Menotti, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. Robert Shafer, conductor of the City Choir, who also studied with “Mademoiselle” and who wrote a piece for this program, gave a short talk about his experiences as her student and her willingness to let her pupils develop “their own voices.”

That may be the case, but the overwhelming impression of this music was of its sameness. Only Shafer’s “The Sun Never Sets” for chorus and beautifully integrated hand bells, Irving Fine’s “The Hour-Glass” and Boulanger’s own quintessentially French-sounding song-set broke away from page after page of voluptuous textures and close choral harmony — no moments of contrapuntal transparency, no rhythmic spice, no surprises at all in music by Adolphus Hailstork, Copland (very early Copland), Thea Musgrave, Russell Woollen and Nicholas Maw.

The Jubilate Ringers from Sydenstricker United Methodist Church gave beautifully coordinated support to Shafer’s sensitive setting of a Persian text, and soprano Deborah Sternberg, with a light, accurate voice ideally suited to the French repertoire, did a nice job with Boulanger’s songs that could have been magnificent if she had found a way to calm down her quick vibrato.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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