Choral Guild, new director make memorable season debut

The Williamsburg Choral Guild opened its 43rd season under the direction of its new artistic director, Brian J. Isaac in a notably lovely program, “Dawn of Night,” designed to touch on the transitional power of sunset, darkness and light and the associated poetic and emotional relationship to life.

Sunday’s afternoon standing room only performance in the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church provided the setting for 11 compositions having connections with beginnings and ends, starts and finishes, life and death.

It was an illuminating program made more so by Isaac and his genial hosting and commentary on each work, an effort to draw his audience into the music making taking place. And it was a successful effort as heard by the Guild’s nice blended sound in works, the compositional sort of which have historically allowed the Guild to do what it does best: offer a full-voiced and balanced delivery of works that are based on lyrical lines, expression and cohesion, and not so much on excessive compositional complexities.

The pleasing fare opened with Alice Parker’s upbeat arrangement of the hymn “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,” followed by the lovely, melodic and flowing communal lines of Craig Johnson’s arrangement of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Requiem,” written in memory of those who lost lives in the Asian tsumani of 2004 and a call to a sense of community.

Following came “Dawn of Night,” the titular program’s banner which was based on Canadian composer Stephen Chatman’s setting of two poems by his wife, Tara Wohlberg, ”Whisper Me” and “Hush, Hush.” Written last year, the segments explore the essence of love and loss. While lovely in design, the work, sadly, was not the carrier of the night given unfortunate playing issues from cellist Kevin Jones that too periodically created a general sense of musical uncertainty.

The program’s publicity focused on the Chatman and Jonathan Dove’s “Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars.” While both did succeed in crafting an atmosphere of wonder and appreciation, Dove’s work, overall, found greater sound fulfillment.

It’s Biblically based on lines from Amos and Psalms and approaches the question of who makes the stars, which logically and subsequently leads to seeking that maker in a mixture of devotion and peace. Its structure is elegant, the rich harmonies blending with a compelling organ accompaniment, meant to represent twinkling stars and the vastness of the universe. The Guild easily met the intended desires and offered a fine delivery.

Venturing into German, the Guild offered Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Abendlich Schon Rauscht Der Wald” and Brahms’s “O Schone Nacht,” both of which were pleasant and done with intent. Following these, the Guild then delivered Daniel Elder’s contemporary but accessible “Lullaby.” Written as a lullaby to a child, the 90-some voice chorus wrapped its collective arms around it with sweet, sensitive and sincere caring.

As it started, the program closed on an upbeat, vibrant note with Keith Hampton’s “True Light,” a spirited spiritual of great energy. Throughout the fare, Karen Ives offered superb piano and organ accompaniment that rounded off the overall quality affair. Without question, this first outing with Isaac and the Guild was positive and promising for the future to be shared between the two and us.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for more than 40 years.

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