A notable, Kickstarter-funded concert of new and vintage American choral music

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Baltimore talent and determination produced a highly satisfying concert of choral music by American composers.

The late-spring season in Baltimore has turned out to be doubly notable for the efforts of some gifted young musicians who have Peabody Conservatory in common.

In May, Frances Pollock's opera "Stinney" received a riveting premiere, serving notice of a serious, passionate composer with something deep and crucial to say.

Last weekend, a beautifully put together choral music program featured works of considerable expressive substance by two other composers who have studied at Peabody, Joshua Bornfield and Peter Dayton.

In a burst of synergy, the chorus was directed by Joshua Glassman, a tenor who sang in "Stinney." Other cast members from that opera were among the choristers, and so was Pollock, an accomplished soprano.

It's worth underlining that these events occurred because the musicians involved made them happen.

For years, music students have been told by various voices of authority that they need to be their own advocates, since today's cold, cruel world offers so few jobs and performance opportunities. It's cool to see all these Peabody-trained folks embracing this concept head-on, getting things done for themselves, one way or another.

In the case of "American Masses: An Evening of American Choral Music," held Saturday night at the historic St. John's in the Village, co-producers Glassman and Dayton took the Kickstarter route. In short order, they ended up surpassing their goal of $4,500. The funds enabled them to pay all the performers a respectable fee.  

With only a few rehearsals, Glassman molded the chorus of 17 into a cohesive ensemble that produced a vibrant, almost always well-balanced tone and articulated with admirable clarity throughout the nearly all-a cappella program.

The concert's overall theme was spirituality, secular and non. The selections were chosen, in part, to provide a reminder of the common ground whites and blacks share -- a reminder all the more needed after the unrest in the city and the lingering questions of where, and how, we go from here. There was no mistaking the extra weight in the message of such vintage spirituals as "Hard Trials."

Another goal of the event was to provide the first hearing of Dayton's "Light and Mystery," a three-movement suite from his not yet completed "An American Mass." Rather than in the tradition of sacred music, the composer sees this Mass more as a humanist reflection on such fundamental issues as life, love and loss.   

Dayton's choice of poetry in the "Light and Mystery" suite -- John Ashbery's "Just Walking Around," May Swenson's "I Will Be Earth," Ronald Johnson's "The Core" -- is as astute as his settings. With a refined sense of melodic arcs and harmonic motion, Dayton expresses the essence of each text tellingly.

High points include the playful, almost bubble-gum pop reiterations in the ecstatic "I Will be Earth," and the lush chordal fabric supporting the darkly expressive lines of "The Core." The suite made me eager to hear the full "American Mass." 

Glassman drew a subtly nuanced performance from the chorus and warm-toned tenor soloist Christian Hoff. (Dayton, by the way, sang in the tenor section throughout the concert.)

Bornfield, the Baltimore-based Peabody alum whose recent operas have revealed exceptional skill, was represented on the program by "Farewell (Long Time Travelin')." Part of larger work that has also been considered a kind of American Mass, this piece is deftly written, conjuring up a touch of Appalachia in distinctive, stirring fashion. It received a colorful account.

A couple of richly lyrical works by the late Stephen Paulus were on the program; "The Road Home" was sung with particular sensitivity by the ensemble and soprano soloist Abigail Chapman.

Also well worth hearing: Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei," his choral version of "Adagio for Strings" (the chorus encountered some strain in the most emphatic passages, but achieved a good deal of eloquence); and a rarer item, the elegant "Ave Maria" by neglected African American composer R. Nathaniel Dett (the performance benefited from lovely solo wok by baritone Fitzgerald St. Louis).

Two superb Craig Hella Johnson arrangements of spirituals, sculpted with great care by Glassman, added greatly to the evening. They showcased the quality of the choir and its individual voices -- alto Taylor Boykins, tenor Tariq Al-Sabir and Pollock did impressive solo work.

All in all, an unpretentious and generous concert. I'd happily hear it all over again.

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