Vanderbilt Chorale, Tucker Biddlecombe (Conductor): Music in the Listening Place
Navona Records

The vocal artistry of the Vanderbilt University Chorale is in full and luxuriant display throughout this splendid debut recording by the ensemble and conductor Tucker Biddlecombe, whose official title at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music is Director of Choral Activities. Though Choral music at the university can be traced back as far as 1895, the time of the Vanderbilt Men's Glee Club, it was only six years ago that the Vanderbilt Chorale formed. Since then, the outfit has demonstrated impressive range in its projects, from the performance of a time-honoured work such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion to collaborations with the innovative vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

Nine works, many of them multi-movement, are presented on this comprehensive, sixty-five-minute collection, most of which was recorded in April 2017 at Vanderbilt University's Ingram Hall. Complementing a performance of Ravel's Trois Chansons are works by a number of contemporary composers featuring texts drawn from William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and others. Variety is bolstered here by the inclusion of instrumentalists, among them guitarist Richard Todd, djembe player Matthew Leo, and pianists Polly Brecht and Matt Phelps, whose contributions further distinguish the works from one another, and individual Chorale members, such as soprano Olivia Heaner and tenor Matthew Shorten, also shine during these performances.

The release begins strongly with the Chorale in all its collective, full-throated glory declaiming forcefully in Daniel Read's “Windham,” after which Eric Whitacre's Three Songs of Faith clothes the spiritual themes of e.e. cummings' prose in resplendent musical garb. A stirring sense of hushed rapture pervades “i will wade out,” its allure as sensual as it is ethereal, whereas the elegant “hope, faith, life, love” and “i thank you god for most this amazing day” convey starry-eyed wonderment and humble supplication in quietly euphoric manner, the latter song's majesty bolstered by soprano Maria Servodidio. Ravel's Trois Chansons, his only work of choral literature, wends from the playful “Nicolette” and “Ronde” to the elegant melancholia of “Trois Beaux Oiseaux Du Paradis” (“Three Beautiful Birds of Paradise”), a protoypically Ravel-esque exercise that provides a beautiful showcase for soprano Lauren Urquhart, alto Maggie Birmingham-Corbett, tenor Charles Calotta, and baritone Salvador Miranda.

The addition of a string quartet lends Michael Slayton's Three Settings of Ezra Pound distinctive flavour, the musicians' sonorities in this case deepening the sense of mystery imparted by the composer's harmonically adventurous material, whose fragility is accentuated by the tendril-like character of the strings' utterances. Elsewhere, Todd's acoustic guitar and Leo's djembe provide appealing respective complements to the Chorale during Alf Houkum's subdued “The Rune of Hospitality” and the glorious traditional “Indodana,” as does Brecht's piano during Eliza Gilkyson's uplifting “Requiem,” one of the album's most moving settings.

Jonathan Dove's seven-part The Passing of the Year is perhaps the most intricate of the works presented. Set to poems by Dickinson, Blake, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Nashe, and George Peele and with Brecht again accompanying the singers, Dove effects transitions from spring with its celebration of nature's rebirth to the onset of autumn and the inevitable winter chill that follows. In appropriate manner, the parts in this panoramic work contrast in tone, from the joyous (“Answer July”) and sultry (“Hot Sun, Cool Fire”) to the dolorous (“Adieu! Farewell Earth's Bliss!”) and hopeful (“Ring Out, Wild Bells”).

In the exquisite setting by David Dickau that caps this exceptional collection, the ensemble gloriously exults, “If music be the food of love, sing on.” Hopefully that can be taken as a sign that future Navona releases featuring the Chorale's vocal artistry will materialize. Given the exceptional performances featured on Music in the Listening Place, one sincerely hopes so.

March 2018