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Ambitious program strains Concert Choir to its limits

MIT Concert Choir
Conducted by John Oliver.
Program of works by Bright Sheng,
Norman Dello Joio, and Stravinsky.
Kresge Auditorium.
May 5.

By Jonathan Richmond

Advisory Board

there was some wonderfully evocative music on offer. A more salient complaint was that the music was too hard. True, it was hard, and the concert choir did at times sound under strain. Many of those who initially joined the choir to participate in this performance dropped out, finding the task of attacking music of such complexity too much for them to take. Under the illumination of John Oliver's tutelage this repertory must have nonetheless made for a rich learning experience, even if the end result was less than professional.

Bright Sheng's Two Folk Songs from Chinhai simply didn't make it. This piece received the least rehearsal time, and it showed. The music sounded as if it could be wonderfully characterful if done properly, but the diffused sounds of confusion emanating from the stage suggested that as far as the concert choir was concerned, they might as well have been singing in Chinese.

In fact, they were singing in Chinese, and perhaps having them attempt to master both Chinese and Russian for one program was unrealistic.

Proud Music of the Storm by Norman Dello Joio fared better. For one thing, it was done in collaboration with the brass ensemble, and they were in splendid form. Brass cresecendi were nicely shaped, powerfully projected, and deeply penetrating. In addition to agile, colorful playing on brass, organist Susan Armstrong played with much spirit. The concert choir had its moments in this evocation of the storm, its wild qualities emerging from the singing. For too much of the piece, however, they sounded oppressed by the sheer difficulty of their music.

This problem continued into Stravinsky's Les Noces, but there were sufficient good points to this performance to make it of interest. Soprano Margaret O'Keefe was terrific, and mezzo Mary Westbrook-Geha's dark-toned voice lent spirit to the performance. The strong solo performances seemed to help the women choristers come together, and they came together in harmony. The women choir members sang with lyricism and captured many elements of the spirit of the piece. Many of the interchanges between women soloists and choristers were very successful, too.

Before complaining about the men, it would be fair to point out that their task was less glamorous and -- some would say -- more difficult. The women got all the best tunes, while the men played more of a continuo role, and a horribly tough one, too. This said, the men did sound on the sludgy side and, while soloist Richard Clement did add color, baritone Mark Aliapoulios did at times sound on the sleepy side, as did the male members of the Concert Choir as a whole. One can only admire the audacity of John Oliver for dragging his concert choir across such perilous territory, but suggest that next time round he might select at least one piece on the program pitched at his singers' ability range, so as to enable them to shine.