SINGING before a packed house at Sanders Theater Friday evening, the massed forces of the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society, under the direction of Elliot Forbes, unleashed a mighty force de frappe in a program calculated to drive the audience into an unholy frenzy. The first half featured delicate works by Elizabethans William Byrd and Thomas Tallis and neo-Elizabethan Benjamin Britten. But after intermission the choir was joined by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra in a performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a bacchanale celebrating the headiest side of springtime.
The chorus used its spread across the wide Sanders' stage to outline the spicy counterpoint of the two pieces by Britten with an exaggerated stereophonic effect. In the Choral Dances the sopranos (for the first of many times during the evening) failed to negotiate wide leaping sections in a high register. The result was a forced tone and faulty intonation. All four sections of the choir had this difficulty whenever the untrained voices moved out of comfortable singing ranges or attempted passages of uncommon technical difficulty.
Forbes drew out a perfectly blended tone in Byrd's Ave Verum that seemed to glow from one warm, focal center. As the separate vocal lines developed, he maintained them with clarity and definition. But dynamics were problematic and in loud passages the tone became flat and a little harsh.
Tallis' Nunc Dimittis, a beautiful work formed of alternating solo chants and choral responses, was generally well-performed. Martin Kessler, whose voice is light but accurate, seemed almost unconcerned as he tossed off the bass solos.
THE musical intentions of the first half of the program were set aside during intermission. The orchestra assembled on the stage with fewer strings than usual, with a mammoth tuba lurking at the rear of the brass section, and with several megatons of percussion prominently displayed. This artillery was lined up to attack Orff's Carmina Burana, at best a second rate piece of music but unfailingly successful as a spectacle.
In both music and text Carmina Burana is about the body, and it rarely even pays lip service to the soul. Under Forbes' vigorous direction, chorus and orchestra turned every available muscle to the task and produced violently contrasting dynamics and bruising rhythmic drive. The choir commanded a seemingly inexhaustable supply of volume which swept in wave upon wave, a high powered form of the "Bolero" crescendo. The attacks of the chorus and orchestra were explosive and for the most part precise.
The three soloists in the Carmina were all praise-worthy. Unconditional raves go to James Jones. His voice is an incredibly flexible instrument capable of producing a full, rich, often truly beautiful tone as well as a wide variety of expressive registrations. He is a gifted actor as well and a thoughtful application of both these talents produced the most genuinely exciting performance of the evening.
Nancy Boyd, soprano, lacked purity Friday evening and was often blemished by curious shifts of timbre. Technically, however, she was in complete control and in her final number picked her way through a twisting coloratura passage and then leapt to a ringing high D. Tenor Roger Childs was called on only once--to sing "The Roasted Cygnet's Song," which lies in a stratospheric register--and Childs produced the notes as well as the proper quality of a wailing lament.
The HRO provided hearty support with accurate playing from the strings, fine solos by flute and bassoon, and a frenetic percussion section. And when victory was clearly in sight, the enthusiastic woodwinds put down their instruments and joined in singing the crashing finale.