It takes extraordinary excellence to win a seven and a half minute ovation from even the most generous of concert audiences. Director Iva Dee Hiatt and the Harvard Summer School Chorus were rewarded with just such applause last night at their annual concert in Sanders Theatre.
Though part of the enthusiasm in the theatre was created by the almost spectacular performance of Bach's Cantata #50, Nun ist das Heil that ended the program, the audience was also attempting to express its appreciation for what had been an unusually fine, interesting evening. There were some unfortunate shortcomings in the ambitious program, but in its entirety it was a testament both to the efforts of the students in the chorus and the skill of Miss Hiatt. Said one member of the Music Department, "that woman is a wizard."
Miss Hiatt faced a huge (175-voice), enthusiastic group on the medium-sized Sanders stage; its sheer size was almost frightening. At no point, though, was she ever out of control. Her singers made no sounds without her specific instruction and she managed to mold the great masses of tone into carefully sculptured forms embellished with a variety of textures.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the chorus was at its best with Samuel Barber's Reincarnations, a highly complex composition that requires both virtuosity and subtlety. One reason for its successful presentation was the fact that Miss Hiatt and her chorus were working without the accompaniment of the orchestra that sometimes hurt the other pieces on the program.
The first part of the Reincarnations, a whimsical love song called "Mary Hynes," gave the chorus an opportunity to show off the precision it has developed during six short weeks of rehearsal. The playful syncopations were sharply executed; phrasing was smartly tailored to the words. In the tone poemish second part of "Mary" the group achieved the onomatopeia Barber intended: even with nine score voices, the "lovely and airy . . . view from the hill" was light and airy indeed.
More impressive still was the second song, a mournful dirge for a executed man later proved innocent. The transition from the joyous love of anticipated happiness to the grief of love that can only wail its anguish was smooth; the atmosphere in Sanders changed almost instantaneously.
Then in the final segment, "The Coolin," the chorus luxuriated in the thrill and poignancy of returned love, with "a sigh to answer a sigh and a lip to find out a lip."
Not quite as successful nor imaginatively directed was the Handel Jubilate that concluded the first half of the program. Though a somewhat standard Handel composition which I have always thought lacked the flair and magnificence he achieved in his other works, it is still fine, powerful music always worth hearing.
Only the chorus stanzas were well done last night, however, and even they suffered from a less able orchestral group recruited from the Cambridge Civic Symphony. At times the trumpet section alone threatened to destroy the well-blended harmonies Miss Hiatt received from her singers.
The soloists, who were often embarrassing, presented another set of problems. Counter tenor Donald Parsons was the worst detractor, and bass Donald Langmuir, though not prone to missing notes like Parsons, lacked power and richness. Greer McLane, the mezzo soprano, was the best of the trio, if rather uninspired.
The Summer School Chamber Singers had a mixed evening. Their opening selections, by William Byrd lacked cohesion and expression. The group did not have sufficient intensity and timing to sustain the delicate suspensions in the music; the fine weave of Byrd's musical cloth became confused and unravelled. Again, some of the difficulty was the accompaniment, a group of three viols and a recorder. The members of the Camerata Players had beautiful instruments, but not the facility to draw equally lovely and graceful tones from them.
Clement Janequin's Four Chansons, which greeted the overflow audience after intermission, more than compensated for the Chamber Singers' early misfortunes, however. They were a quartet of jewels that would have enhanced any royal collection. Especially memorable was La Plus Bells de la Ville, a flirtatious ode to the prettiest girl in town. La Chante des Oyseaulx (Song of the Birds), a fantasy that includes imitations of bird sounds, was superb, shimmering with brilliant clusters of sound. Toutes les Nuictz was a translucent ruby, a deep and haunting love song. The Camerata Players also redeemed themselves in the Janequin with soft, mellow recorder background music.
Despite the weaknesses, however, just two thoughts really marred last last night's concert: only 1,200 people were able to hear the program, and the chorus will not sing together again.